Conceptual Art

Glenn Ligon

United States 1960

Installation, Conceptual Art

Glenn Ligon
Glenn Ligon
United States
November 12, 2014
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It takes courage to even try to make a difference. This goes for all aspects of life, but it particularly applies to art. If you were to speak about making changes through art, one of the first names that would pop to mind is Glenn Ligon. This American artist is renowned for combining his formal art education with complexities of his personal history to create emotionally charged pieces that convey challenging messages and subcontexts. They are direct pieces as well – he uses letters and sentences (mostly quoted statements) to convey a message for the audiences.

Glenn Ligon - Untitled(Four Etchings)(detail) - Photo Credits Arts Observers - Contact Whitney for neon images
Glenn Ligon – Untitled(Four Etchings)(detail) – Photo Credits Arts Observers

Before The Glenn We Know

Glenn was born in the Bronx, NY, in 1960. Being a new edition to a working-class family, his early childhood was marked by limited home budget. However, when Ligon turned 7, his divorced parents agreed that the best course of action for him and his brother was to enlist them with the Walden School, a prestigious progressive private institution in Manhattan. Paying high scholarships was not an easy feat for Glenn’s parents to accomplish, but they admirably made it all work. Walden School provided Ligon the knowledge necessary to eventually get into the program of the Wesleyan University. He graduated with a B.A. in 1982 and got a job as a proofreader for a law firm. In the meantime, Glenn made a hobby for himself out of painting in an abstract expressionistic style, similar to that of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. This way of spending spare time was a positive filter for Glenn as it allowed him to be himself without any sort of boundaries of the outside world and its stresses. What started as a relaxation therapy eventually turned into something much more important as Glenn started participating in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program during the year of 1985. At that moment it seems as Ligon dedicated himself fully to the artistic side of his personality – it took him only four years to establish a name and hold his first solo exhibition in Brooklyn, named as How It Feels to Be Colored Me. And, surprisingly, it didn’t look anything like Pollock or de Kooning. Actually, it was unlike anything before him.

There’s no denying that Ligon’s pieces are raw

Glenn Ligon - Mudbone 3(detail), 1993 - Photo Credits Tate - Contact Whitney for neon images
Glenn Ligon – Mudbone 3(detail), 1993 – Photo Credits Tate

The Letter Games

The Brooklyn show in 1989 established Glenn’s reputation for creating large, text-based paintings. Ligon’s work at the time was greatly influenced by his experiences as an African American and a gay man living in the United States. Have in mind that Glenn did not grow into a man during the relatively liberal 21st century – he faced early life during the turbulent ’80, the defining years both for the colored and homosexual people of the US. These circumstances had a toll on Gleen’s artwork which is very easy to notice. His takes on the topics of slavery, civil rights and sexual politics are what drives his art from inside out. The Glenn’s trademark is the incorporation of literary fragments and jokes from many authors. These quotes are directly stenciled onto the canvas by hand and often are repeated many times on one single piece. This way it seems as the same statement was repeated so many times it lost it’s meaning in the process. Glenn usually quotes big figures of history – including the writings and speech of Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Richard Pryor, etc. Glenn Ligon can be perceived as a conceptual artist. Throughout his long creative career, he tackled many obstacles in life – many of which all of us face during our lifetimes: race, language, desire, sexuality. Ligon’s method demands that he engages in intertextuality with other works from the visual arts and literature, but with his own life experience as well. Besides painting, he also practices neon, photography, sculpture, print, installation etc. All in all, Ligon’s art goes by the saying: the end justifies the means. The concept is what’s important, not the way you make a point.

Glenn Ligon - Gold When Black Wasn't Beautiful (detail) - Photo Credits RFC - Study Policy
Glenn Ligon – Gold When Black Wasn’t Beautiful (detail) – Photo Credits RFC

Glenn’s Recognitions

Ligon’s art is represented in many public and private collections around the world. His work can be found in The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago,The Museum of Modern Art in New York, in The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Tate Modern in London, etc. The list can go on for quite some time. Such wide recognitions are not common for contemporary artists, especially not the living ones. Ligon was also granted numerous awards for his work and it’s influences. An interesting fact – in 2009 President of the United States, Barack Obama, added Ligon’s piece Black Like Me No. 2 to the White House collection on a loan deal. It was installed in the President’s private living quarters. The text on this particular piece is from the 1961 memoir written by John Howard Griffin on the account of his experiences while traveling the South with his skin artificially darkened. This led to many newspaper headlines that stated Ligon is Obama’s favorite artist.

Glenn makes his work hard to read on purpose

Glenn Ligon - Stranger in the Village #7 (detail) - Photo Credits Arts Observers - Study Policy
Glenn Ligon – Stranger in the Village #7 (detail) – Photo Credits Arts Observers

Is Glenn The Right Artist For You?

Ligon’s paintings and installations deal with social identity and equality. These topics are always touchy subjects, especially when they are displayed in a way Glenn shows them. In his pieces, the accent is put on the statements – Ligon transforms his compositions using texts he quotes. His art is layered with meaning and is difficult to read, which are features also shared with his subject matters. If you’re looking for subtleness and casualness, Ligon is not an artist for you. His style is full of anger, despite its obvious objectiveness. Glenn shows us that although we pride ourselves as being cultured and civilized, there is much more work ahead of us. An important lesson for all of humanity.

The artist is represented by POP FINE ART Los Angeles in California (United States).

Glenn Ligon lives and works in New York (USA).

Featured Image: Glenn Ligon – Photo of the artist – Photo Credits PBS
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group 
2016We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It IsLuhring Augustine Bushwick, Brooklyn, NYSolo
2016What We Said nthe nLast TimeLuhring Augustine, New York, NYSolo
2016EntanglementsLuhring Augustine, New York, NYGroup
2015Glenn Ligon: LivenRegen Projects, Los Angeles, CASolo
2015Glenn Ligon: Well, It’s Byen-nByen/nIf You Call That GoneRegen Projects, Los Angeles, CASolo
2015Invisible AdversariesHessel Museum, Bard College, Annandalen-nonn-nHudson, NYGroup
2015Open This EndWallachnArtnGallery, Columbia University, New York, NYGroup
2015Pure Pulp: nContemporary Artists Working in nPaper Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art,nHamilton College, Clinton, NYGroup
2015REMIX: Themes nand nVariations in African American Artn Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SCGroup
2015This Is a Portrait if I Say So: Ren-nimagining Representation in American Art,Bowdoin nCollege Museum of Art, Brunswick, MEGroup
2015WordplayMetropolitan Museum of Art, nNew York, NYGroup
2015Andy Warhol to Kara WalkerKimball Art nMuseum, Park City, UTGroup
2015Andy Warhol to Kara WalkerArt Museum of Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, CAGroup
2015Come As You Are:nArt of the 1990snMontclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJGroup
2015Greater New York 2015MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NYGroup
2015I nAm na Lie and I nAm nGoldYossi Milo Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2015New SkinAïshti Foundation, Jal el Dib, LebanonGroup
2015Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information AgenMuseum Brandhorst, Munich, GermanyGroup
2015The World nIs nMade of StoriesAstrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, nNorwayGroup
2015Come As You Are:nArt of the 1990selfair Museumsn, Savannah, nGAGroup
2015Come As You Are:nArt of the 1990sUniversity of Michingan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MIGroup
2015Come As You Are:nArt of the 1990sBlanton Museum of Art, University of nTexasnat Austinn, Austin, TXGroup
2015All the World’s Futures56th Venice Biennale, nVenezia Giardinin—nArsenale Orarion, Venice, ItalyGroup
2015America Is Hard to SeeWhitney Museum of American Art, New York, NYGroup
2015By the BookSean Kelly Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2014Bloodflames RevisitedPaul Kasmin Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2014Glenn Ligon - Come OutThomas Dane Gallery, LondonSolo
2014Glenn Ligon: Call and ResponseCamden Arts Centre, London, EnglandSolo
2014Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau CollectionSan Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CAGroup
2014More MaterialSalon 94 Bowery, New York City, NYGroup
2014Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art Broad Art Museum, East LansingGroup
2014The Disappearance of the firefliesCollection Lambert, AvignonGroup
201330 AmericansFrist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TNGroup
2013Blues for SmokeWexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OHGroup
2013Cinematic Visions - Painting at the Edge of Reality Victoria Miro Gallery, LondonGroup
2013I, You, WeWhitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NYGroup
2013Picture: LiteratureWilliams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MAGroup
2013Roots and LinksThe Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DCGroup
2012Black White Gray BlueDes Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IAGroup
2012Blues For SmokeThe Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2012Distant StarRegen Projects, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2012Editions Part OnePaul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto, ONGroup
2012From Page to SpaceGalerija Murska Sobota, Murska SobotaGroup
2012Glenn Ligon: AmericaThe Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TXSolo
2012Glenn Ligon: NeonLuhring Augustine Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2012Hard TargetsIndianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art - iMOCA, Indianapolis, INGroup
2012TabooMuseum of Contemporary Art Sydney - MCA, Sydney, NSWGroup
2012The Civil War: Unfolding DialoguesAddison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MAGroup
2012Weighted WordsZabludowicz Collection London, LondonGroup
2011Glenn Ligon - Recent PrintsGreg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, WASolo
2011Textimonies: Early Etchings and Stencils by Glenn LigonThacher Gallery - University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CASolo
2010Glenn Ligon: Neither Here nor ThereStevenson, Cape TownSolo
2009Glenn Ligon - 'Nobody' and Other SongsThomas Dane Gallery, LondonSolo
2009Off BookRegen Projects, Los Angeles, CASolo
2008Glenn Ligon - Love and TheftPower House Memphis, Memphis, TNSolo
2008The Death of Tommocca - Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto, ONSolo
2007Glenn Ligon - UnauthorizedBill Hodges Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2007Glenn Ligon: Some ChangesThe Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, BCSolo
2005Glenn Ligon: DrawingsBaldwin Gallery, Aspen, COSolo
2004Glenn Ligon - Text Paintings 1990 - 2004Regen Projects, Los Angeles, CASolo
2003Glenn Ligon: Going ThereD'Amelio Terras, New York City, NYSolo
2001Glenn Ligon: ColoredD'Amelio Terras, New York City, NYSolo
2000Coloring: New Work by Glenn LigonWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, MNSolo
1998Glenn Ligon - UnbecomingICA - Institute of Contemporary Art - University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PASolo
1996Drawings by Glenn Ligon: Evidence of Things Not SeenBrooklyn Museum of Art, New York City, NYSolo
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