When the Whitney Museum opened its Glenn Ligon retrospective, "America," in March, they put one of Bronx-born Ligon's signature neon pieces in their Madison Avenue window. The sign read "negro sunshine," with all lower case letters in a sophisticated serif font and hung just above the museum's newly opened restaurant.
"We were afraid people would think it was the restaurant's name," said Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, speaking on a LACMA panel the week the same Ligon retrospective opened there. That could've been seen as tasteless, if not outright offensive. The restaurant is actually called Untitled ("You should've called it Negro Sunshine," said Ligon, speaking on the same panel).
Installed at LACMA, the neon sign hangs more than a safe distance from the museum restaurant, on the second floor of the Broad Contemporary building in a window facing away from the street. You probably won't even notice it if you aren't at the museum for the express purpose of art viewing, and even then, you'll likely notice its smart, literate, expensive look before registering what it actually says. Suave impropriety is Ligon's thing, and his work has always been concerned with style and beauty as much as it's concerned with issues, like what it means to be a black male American who came of age during the Reagan era.
Ligon's exhibition begins with early work and proceeds more or less chronologically. Text paintings from the late 1980s, featuring stenciled phrases from dreambooks plentiful in the African-American community where Ligon grew up, meet you when you enter the first gallery. They've rarely been shown and they're looser and rougher than what comes after, including the series of Runaways lithographs in the next gallery. For these, Ligon inserted himself into ads for 19th century runaway slaves, keeping the antiquated language and formal font. "Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5'8"' begins one, and since Ligon asked friends to describe him, the messages on each are personal and comically quirky; he " wears black socks" or "looks at you from the corner of his eye." A caricature of a black man, often with a knapsack of some sort, tops each lithograph.
The Runaways share a gallery with another equally "formal" project about a less distant past, called Notes on the Margin of the Black Book. It's a consideration of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's compendium of black male bodies, published in the midst of the AIDS crisis and Reagan-era culture wars. Always overtly apolitical, Mapplethorpe treated the figures in his seductively sculpted Black Book photographs a lot like he treated the lilies in another famous series of his: like pretty things to pose.
Ligon's version, originally shown at the 1993 biennial, reproduces all 91 pictures, but "annotates" them with quotes from literati and cult personalities, like Hilton Kramer, James Baldwin and a drag queen from Paris is Burning. Hung at eye level and evenly spaced, Notes comes off as a tasteful, even classy approach to cultural criticism. Now that it's become safe, even expected, for artists to address the AIDS legacy and identity politics, there seems to be a nostalgia implicit in the work for a time when delicately broaching queerness, race and the threat of HIV could be subversive in itself.
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As the exhibition progresses, the work becomes more self-involved. Large paintings made up of text often stenciled on with shimmering coal dust mixed with ink, or with thick oil sticks, say things like "I remember the very day I became colored" over and over again. But they're nearly unreadable. So are the brash colored paintings that pop up in one room of the otherwise mostly black and white show. Based on Richard Pryor jokes about blackness, beauty and belonging, they make your head spin -- especially the one with red letters over a blue background.
Ligon's newest work spells the word America forward and backward in neon in white and black. Black neon doesn't actually exist, so the artist had to "mask" white light with dark paint to achieve the desire, darkened effect. In this case, disguise and inversion doesn't keep the text in these majestically big pieces from being fully readable.
"My initial hesitation with the title is that it seemed too big," said Ligon about the choice to call his retrospective "America." And it is too big. The whole show traverses a long lineage of American literature, grapples with huge chunks of history (slavery, AIDS) and does so with that stylish ambiguity that dominated in the '90s up until the financial crisis, when artists started shying away from bigness and sleekness so as not to seem indulgent. But even if Ligon takes luxuries with his materials and ideas, bigness itself is beside the point. The point is not having to make a point, and having freedom to indulge in style even when dealing with racy ideas and to think things through for yourself in your own way, over and over again.