Glenn Ligon had his first solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993, the same year he appeared in the museum’s much maligned biennial. At the time, politically provocative art dominated the cultural landscape, and as the conceptual artist channeled African-American cultural history through text-based pieces that declared things like “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Ligon found himself stereotyped as an artist propagandizing about racial identity. “Everyone imagines that my first texts, paintings, and drawings came from literary sources—the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Genet, James Baldwin,” Ligon says. “But what they haven’t seen is a series of drawings from 1985 where I scrawled text from gay-porn magazine stories on top of and into very expressionistic, painterly grounds.” A new solo exhibition at the Whitney, “Glenn Ligon: America,” which opens March 10 and runs through June 5, aims to correct that misperception and more. For years the substance of Ligon’s art obscured its style (the work trades in cultural ephemera ranging from children’s coloring books to Richard Pryor jokes), but the show’s 100 newly displayed paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, and sculptures reveal a playful balancing of form and content. As Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, who organized the exhibition, puts it, “Ligon is that rare artist who manages to make work that is both socially relevant and visually ravishing.” Porn, politics, and pop—what’s more American, really, than finding high style in low places?
Collection Of Michael And Lise Evans/Courtesy Of Glenn Ligon And The Whitney Museum