On a recent blustery afternoon, the wind sweeping across the empty lots along Third Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., the artist Glenn Ligon swings wide the door of his spacious studio in an old factory, welcoming a conversation about his upcoming show. An elegant man of 51, dressed in crisp, blue shirt, black jacket and slacks, he mutes the sound of John Coltrane's saxophone coming from the radio. "I haven't stopped organizing for months," he says with a smile.
He has a lot to smile about. On March 10 the Whitney Museum of American Art presents "Glenn Ligon: America," a midcareer retrospective with more than 100 works, which will be on view through June 5.
Black and gay, he primarily focuses on race and gayness, or what he calls "outsiderness," in his paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures and videos. "Artists are disturbers of the peace," he notes, before showing the striking works hanging on the walls. He pauses before the severe Painting/"I Am a Man," with large black letters against a stark, white background, the "Am" underlined; and Rückenfigur, a neon sign reading "America," with some letters backward. He comes to the simple drawing Sun, which includes candy-cane-colored and purple letter S's, a woman in an orange hat and two figures almost scribbled out. The word "soul" appears in the corner. Another drawing, Malcolm X, depicts the leader with pink lips and red daubs on his cheeks.
Ligon's painting Mirror is filled with almost indecipherable words; only the phrase "see my smile" is legible at the top. From the beginning of his career, he has produced large, text-based paintings with phrases chosen from literature or other sources, repeated over and over until they eventually blend into the canvas. "As I developed," he says, "I realized that the text was the painting and that everything else was extraneous. The painting became the act of writing a text on a canvas, but in all my work, text turns into abstraction."
A good way to understand his art, he explains, is to read James Baldwin's essays, in particular "Stranger in the Village." Written in the mid-'50s, it takes place in a small Swiss village where Baldwin moved to write a novel. The only black man there, he inspired fear and curiosity in the people. "It's not only about race relations," Ligon says, "but about what it means to be a stranger anywhere. How does one break down the barrier between people? It's a global question, and it probably reflects what I've been trying to do — reach out more."
Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney curator who organized the exhibit, considers Ligon a universal artist. "Glenn has figured out how to make art that involves his personal history and cultural background in a way that doesn't feel limited but actually speaks to all of us," Rothkopf says. "In fact, the reason I proposed calling his retrospective Glenn Ligon: America was to get beyond the idea that his work addresses the concerns of only African Americans or gay Americans, because we're all part of this larger story.
"Someone once said that Glenn makes work about being black and gay," Rothkopf continues, "and I replied, that may be true, but if that's the case, then it's also about what it means to perceive somebody as black and gay, and in that sense, it really concerns everyone, how we understand and interact with one another."
The art world has long been aware of Ligon's brilliance, but it wasn't until President and Mrs. Obama selected his 1992 painting Black Like Me #2 for their private quarters at the White House, a loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, that the general public began to take notice. (The painting's title refers to the 1961 memoir by white author John Howard Griffin, about his travels in the South disguised as a black man.)
"It was thrilling to have them choose it," Ligon says. "It's wonderful that they're not afraid of culture, take their kids to museums and invite artists to the White House." He hasn't been asked — yet — but says he would happily accept an invitation to the White House.
From his childhood growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., he loved to draw, finding a rich source of subjects in his imagination. He also had a deep interest in literature. Though there wasn't a family precedent to becoming an artist, his mother, a nurse's aide, and father, a line foreman for General Motors, encouraged his interest in art, signing him up for classes in pottery.
"They were solid working class," he says, "from a long line of civil servants, many of them having held jobs in the post office. Not knowing any artists, they were naturally afraid that I wouldn't be able to make a living. Fortunately, they lived long enough to see that I could." That's more than an understatement: The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, among several other museums, have his work in their permanent collections.
In his teens, Ligon earned a scholarship to Walden, a progressive Manhattan private school, and then to Wesleyan University, where he first planned to study architecture. But art had already won him over, and by the time he graduated, he was committed to the field and moved back to New York. To support himself, he took a job proofreading at a law firm, painting at night and on weekends.
His first heroes were abstract painters like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. But after he entered the Whitney Museum independent-study program in 1985, though he has never deserted painting, he began to use words in his art. The turning point in his career came in 1989, when he won a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts after mounting his first solo show, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," in Brooklyn. "I thought, I can either put the money in the bank," he says, "or use it to try to be an artist full time. I knew my only love was making art. I thought I might as well go for it."
Only two years later, the Whitney Museum asked him to participate in its Biennial. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum, first discovered him there. "I was immediately impressed by his wide range of subjects," she says, "and how thoughtful and rigorous he is as a thinker. He has this exciting ability to bring different perspectives to different times in history; it's a truly unique vision, intellectually intimate, poetic and supremely beautiful."
Ligon looks forward to getting back to work after the long preparation for this exhibition. "Art making is thinking through things," he says, "and is infinitely challenging. I'll always have something to explore."
The exhibition travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the fall of 2011 and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012. It is accompanied by a substantial monograph, published in association with Yale University Press.