Glenn Ligon is a conceptual artist whose work explores issues of race, sexuality, representation and language. Born in the Bronx, Ligon still lives and works in New York. With a BA from Wesleyan University in 1982, Ligon was chosen for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in 1985. His work has since been featured in solo exhibitions at impressive venues including the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, Dia Center for the Arts, the Studio Museum in Harlem, The Power Plant and most recently a mid-career retrospective traveled from the Whitney Museum of American Art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, closing its tour at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Ligon’s work has been included in seminal group exhibitions such as the 1991 and 1993 Whitney Biennials, the 1997 Venice Biennale, Documenta XI and Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art curated by Thelma Golden in 1994–95. President Obama, upon entering office, installed Ligon’s painting Black Like Me No. 2 (a text-based piece named for the controversial 1961 book by John Howard Griffin) at the White House in the family living space. When asked about this honor on Public Radio’s KERA talk show, THINK, Ligon commented that he was thrilled that we have a President and First Lady who believe in art, who aren’t afraid of it.
I AM A MAN
There is a succinct quality to Glenn Ligon’s use of text. Form is as critical to meaning as content. Ligon has stated that he aims to “make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it.” The gravity of the four words, I AM A MAN, on the bold and uniform placards carried by thousands of protesters marching in solidarity with the Memphis Sanitation Workers, March, 1968 is certainly a strong model for Ligon’s aspiration – given the sign’s brevity and conviction of both message and image.
As a gay, black man who was too young for the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike to be personally/experientially understood, Ligon proposes the contemporary relevance of this historical statement by renewing the simplicity, dignity and brilliance of the now iconic sign carried by those proud and exasperated men in 1968, with two works: the early recognized painting Untitled (I Am a Man) of 1988, a replica of the original sign; and Condition Report, two framed Iris prints made in 2000. The “I AM A MAN” idiom maintains its power as Ligon makes it art.
Condition Report is included in where is the power for all of the obvious reasons as well as reasons that are still occurring to me as I consider both form and content. One print is a reproduction of Untitled (I Am a Man). The other is the same with the addition of hand written notes reporting signs of age and mishaps atop the image of that original painting replicating the historical I AM A MAN placard, attesting to a concentrated and intimate consideration of the profound proclamation as well as the passage of time and the wear-and-tear of life.