In America’s self-obsessed culture it is always refreshing to see an artist who creates with an open acknowledgment to their own place in a larger history. Individuals who are members of oppressed or neglected groups are always the most likely to identify more as part of a larger whole than exclusively as individuals. As a gay black man the conceptual artist Glenn Ligon (b. 1960, Bronx, New York) has spent his entire career working out how his individual identity fits into the larger histories of black, gay and black-and-gay people in America. Below find my thoughts on Untitled (I’m Turning Into A Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going To Haunt You) which is a part of the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and was my introduction to the work of Mr Ligon.
Glenn Ligon became an art world mainstay in the early nineties when he produced a series of paintings in which he appropriated words from literary and historical texts and painted them onto his canvases, repeating the phrases over and over and increasing the heaviness of the paint as he worked down the canvas. His 1992 painting Untitled (I’m Turning Into A Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going To Haunt You) was the first piece of Mr Ligon’s that I had ever seen and it truly did haunt me – and still does to this day. The phrase, removed from the 1959 play Les Nègres (The Blacks) by French playwright Jean Genet, is reinterpreted by Mr Ligon to take on a number of possible meanings; Mr Ligon losing his own identity as a black man to an identity as an artist, the cries of those who died in the then-recent AIDS-epidemic of the 1980s, a literal interpretation of Ligon’s artistic process, a comment on the ephemerality of the product of artistic creation vs the true power of memorable art. I wonder how many more interpretations Mr Ligon had considered before showing this piece 22 years ago…I wonder how many interpretations he would have for it now. I don’t think he would be the one to jump up and analyze his own work, though. He seems to be more of the present-and-get-out-of-the-way sort. The genius of this piece is not only in the multiple interpretations but in seeing that it is teaching a lesson in how to view its makers work: Looking the painting over we are taught how to see it, in that we know what lies beneath that mess of black paint at the bottom but more because the work has told us already, and has made it simple to see what is obscure. What is see beyond the murkiness will be different for everyone, but here’s hoping we understand something new about ourselves.
Thank you, Glenn Ligon.