Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Glenn Ligon: America" at the Whitney

Glenn Ligon is good, without doubt -- intelligent, subtle, probing, witty, sometimes billiant, and most emphatically not a trickster.  We see a lot of that in "America," his just-opened midcareer retrospective at the Whitney, which gathers about 100 works.

But the show runs out of steam.  Once we leave the 1990s, when Ligon -- who's black and  gay -- was able to harness themes of racial and sexual identity like no one else, his work as seen here loses its urgency and a lot of its force.

The show is arranged chronologically beginning in 1985, when Ligon was both struggling to get the Jasper Johns monkey off his back and grappling with sexuality and the dilemma of race in American culture, themes that would henceforth permeate his art.

A room with 10 text-based works, with his signature stenciling with paintstick, follows (shown here, a detail from a work with text by Jean Genet, which Ligon changed to the first person).  His own text, "I lost my voice I found my voice," is the equivalent of what's happening artistically.  The pictorial rhythms are sensual, sophisticated, and assured.

But I'd guess we wouldn't be looking at these works now were it not for what followed.  In 1993 Ligon made works for an installation at the Hirshhorn Musseum, "To Disembark," much of which is reassembled here.  It's a meditation on the legacy of slavery in which Ligon plays the starring role.  It's hilarious and tragic at the same time.

One portion is based on the broadsheets by which slave owners advertised for their runaway slaves.  Each runaway is Ligon (above), in one described as "distinguished looking," in another "timid," in a third "a little hunky, though you might not notice it with his shirt untucked."

Another portion is based on the frontispieces of  slave narratives using 18th and 19th century typographic conventions.  Again, each is by and about Ligon.  One reads: "Glenn Ligon, a colored man who at a tender age discovered his affection for the bodies of other men, and has endured scorn and tribulations ever since.  Written by himself."  Pitch perfect.

The other seminal piece is "Notes on the Margin of the Black Book" (above), which reproduces every page from Robert Mapplethorpe's "Black Book" -- black men, mostly naked -- interspersed with quotations from a cacophony of voices, including critics, academicians, politicians, patrons of gay bars, and some of the men who posed.

In this work, everyone comes across as an idiot, not least Mapplethorpe himself, who said, "Most of the blacks don't have health insurance and therefore can't afford AZT.  They all died quickly, the blacks."  It's stomach turning.

Beyond this, there's a series of large, beautiful self-portraits, mugshots mostly of the back of his head (below).

Then this show peters out.  Ligon's attempts to engage Richard Pryor's confrontational "that nigger's crazy" sense of humor just seem ill-suited to an artist who teases out complex reflections.  Repeating the jokes on brightly colored canvases doesn't translate, neutralize, or interpret them.  It's an uneven matchup in which Pryor comes out ahead.

There's a room with smaller works that are interesting and personal -- a screenprint of a report card describing Ligon as antisocial and uncomfortable with his body, for example -- but hardly significant as artworks.

Another room has text works from the last decade based on a James Baldwin essay.  These are lush and elegant but ossified, a return to the Johns aesthetic, this time with a sheen that makes them seem sterile (above left).  Most disappointing, though, is the second-to-last room, in which Ligon as master appropriator uses the art of children he taught (right).

Perhaps his recent neon works will open a more engaging chapter.  Ligon's splendid "Negro Sunshine" beaming out onto Madison Avenue (below) is the artist at his best, rediscovering a vocabulary -- here Gertrude Stein's -- and using it in a new way.

"Glenn Ligon: America," Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison Avenue at 75th Street, through June 5

Images:  Third from bottom, "Mirror," 2002. Collection of Mellody Hobson.  Copyright Glenn Ligon.  Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; second from bottom "Sun (Version 2) #1," 2001.  Collection of Eileen Harris Norton.  Copyright Glenn Ligon.  Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; all other photos by Laura Gilbert.