It’s springtime in New York City. Flowers are blooming. The cranes have returned to the Harlem Meer and visitors to the Whitney Museum are basking in the neon glow of Glenn Ligon’s “negro sunshine”. This provocative piece titled “Warm Glow II” is visitors’ primary encounter with Ligon’s Whitney retrospective. The phrase “negro sunshine” coined by Gertrude Stein is suspended behind the pane glass window of the museum challenging the viewer to engage in a polarizing discourse with the artist. While the title “Warm Glow II” connotes Ligon’s take on Stein’s phrase; the casual viewer is left to decide if “negro sunshine” is a good thing or not.
“Warm Glow II” is indicative of the body of work included in the Glenn Ligon: AMERICA retrospective. The exhibit’s curator, Scott Rothkopf describes Ligon’s series of text-based works as “cringe-worthy”; full of “biting satire and jokiness.” While most of the artist’s work is physically austere, there is a quiet undercurrent of tension in it. Ligon uses Black history and literature to create a discourse on the complexities of identity as it relates to race, sexuality and something he calls “outsiderness.” His work is in dialog with James Baldwin, Charles Dickens, Zora Neal Hurston, Harriett Jacobs and Ralph Ellison among other literary, cultural and political icons.
Repurposed coal dust is a featured medium in several of the text-based paintings in this mid-career retrospective. Ligon’s use of this glittering highly combustible disposable byproduct of the coal mining process creates a powerful subtext of his view of Black identity in America.
The titular work of this exhibit, Rückenfigur, is a white neon wall relief of the word “America” which is painted black to absorb the light. The contrasts between light and dark in Rückenfigur represent dichotomies within American culture. Some of the letters of the sign are reversed suggesting that “America” is somehow facing away from and confronting the viewer simultaneously. The power source of “America” is exposed. These prone cords connect the letters of “America”; they are symbolic of the fragile connection between the American people. Like the power cords of Rückenfigur,the American people are both united and divided at any moment in the history chronicled in the Glenn Ligon: AMERICA exhibition.
The Glenn Ligon:AMERICA exhibition is at the Whitney Museum of American Art from March 10th – June 5th 2011.