One of the first things you see when you walk into the Glenn Ligon: AMERICA show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is a sea of hands.
"It was derived from a newspaper photograph of the Million Man March," New York-based artist Glenn Ligon tells NPR's Liane Hansen. AMERICA is the first comprehensive midcareer retrospective devoted entirely to Ligon, who is African-American and best known for the text-based paintings he started making in the '80s.
Ligon's work is known for being both beautiful and politically provocative — and 1996's Hands is no exception.
"I took a very small image and blew it up to enormous scale," Ligon says. "What happens when you do that is that the information in the image starts to become indistinct. The image darkens."
Ligon says he thought of the way moments in history can seem so clear when they're happening, but inevitably fade over time — and he applied that dynamic to the Million Man March.
"So the sea of hands that you see in the image — which is a moment in the march where there is a pledge of the black men who had gathered there to the black family and to responsibility — becomes much more ambiguous," he says. "The context of the image becomes less clear."
Bringing 'The Notion Of Slavery Into The Present'
Continuing through the gallery, you come to a room scattered with wooden crates. Ligon says the installation To Disembark was inspired by the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a former slave in a Richmond, Va., tobacco factory who won his freedom by convincing a sympathetic white carpenter to make him a crate, close him into it and mail him to an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia.
Ligon learned of the story through a mid-19th century lithograph of Brown emerging from the crate.
"I became fascinated with the idea of this box as the container for the body, but also the idea that if he had spoken, it would have been the thing that would have given him away," Ligon says.
So Ligon has filled his boxes with voices. And because the first thing Brown did when he was liberated from his crate was to sing, most of Ligon's boxes are also singing.
One crate plays a recording of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," an anti-lynching song, while another plays a song by rapper KRS-One.
"We always talk about slavery as an event in the past, and I wanted to contemporize it someway, to bring it forward. So there's Billie Holiday singing, but then there's KRS-One singing 'Sound Of Da Police,' " Ligon says. "[KRS-One] makes this connection between police control and overseers. It was a way to sort of bring the notion of slavery into the present."
The Dichotomies Of 'America'
The last room in the show has three neon signs that each read "AMERICA." One flashes on and off, while another sits unplugged and yet another sits turned around.
"I have been interested in neon for a long time," Ligon says. "The first neon I made was in 2006, using the word 'America.' "
Ligons credits the inspiration for his neon Americas to, of all things, the opening line of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
"After trying to think of a piece using the Dickens text, I realized, actually, Dickens is talking about a moment that society is in where everything is happening and nothing is happening; everything is booming and everyone is poor," Ligon says. "The dichotomies between rich and poor, progress and going backwards seemed to be where we were at in America. Those things going on at the same time seemed, to me, embodied in the word 'America.' "
So while one sign blinks erratically as though shortened out, another — called Ruckenfigur — is simply turned around.
"I realized that if you turn the letters around, it makes a very strange word. It's still the word 'America,' " Ligon says. "The word faces you and turns away from you at the same time."
One Can 'Be An Artist'
Glenn Ligon: AMERICA is showing at the Whitney until June 5. Some of its most notable visitors so far have been the local schoolchildren who come to witness the success of an artist who is not only black, but who grew up in New York.
Ligon says he took after-school art and pottery classes at — among other places — the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But as a child of the Bronx, his artistic rise was pretty unprecedented.
"My mother used to say that when I told her that I wanted to be an artist, her famous line was, 'The only artists I've ever heard of are dead,' " Ligon recalls. "It just wasn't in her experience ... I don't think she had a sense that one could be an artist, because there wasn't anyone in my family who had done that."
Still, Ligon says, he doesn't see himself as role model for aspiring artists — at least not exactly.
"I guess just by example, it would be harder for some parent to say, 'You can't be an artist,' " Ligon says, "because here I am."
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Artist Glenn Ligon is African-American, gay, and grew up working-class in the Bronx. While his own life could provide plenty of inspiration for his work, he tends to look outside of himself for source materials. Ligon enlarges pre-existing images to gargantuan scale. He lifts words and phrases from comedy routines, books, poems, even erotic literature, and uses them to create unique visual pieces. One is now hanging in the White House.
More than 100 of Ligon's works are on display now in New York, a part of a mid-career retrospective called "Glenn Ligon: America."
Glenn Ligon was my personal tour guide of his exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
(Soundbite of a conversations)
HANSEN: As we open and come out of the elevator to the gallery space, we are immediately confronted with a large, what looks like photographs; palms in the air. And reading the catalog, I read that is a representation of the Million Man March. Tell us what it is you were capturing there.
Mr. GLENN LIGON (Artist): It's actually silkscreen. So it was derived from a newspaper photograph of the Million Man March, which was the march organized by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam in the mid-90s. And I took a very small image and blew it up to enormous scale. And so what happens when you do that is that the information in the image starts to become indistinct. The image darkens.
So the sea of hands that you see in the image - which is the moment in the march, where there was a pledge of the black men who had gathered there, to the black family and to responsibility - becomes much more ambiguous. The context of the image becomes less clear. And by working with the image that way, I tried to think about that march or more broadly about history, how moments in history seem distinct at the moment that they're happening, but over time become indistinct, become more ambiguous.
(Soundbite of conversations)
HANSEN: Now, here we have a room full of packing boxes and I do believe Billie Holiday is singing in one of them. This one here?
Mr. LIGON: Mm-hmm.
(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")
Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Dead bodies swinging in the Southern breeze...
HANSEN: What is the meaning of the packing boxes?
Mr. LIGON: A lot of the work that I've done is based on reading a text and being struck by it. In this case, it was based on seeing an image and being struck by it. And the image was a lithograph from the 1840s of a slave named Henry Box Brown, who was a slave in the tobacco factory in Richmond, Virginia, and got the ingenious idea of getting a local white carpenter - who's sympathetic to anti-slavery causes - to make a crate for him; nail him inside of that crate and mail the crate to an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia.
Ad I became fascinated with the idea of this box as a container for the body, but also the idea that if he had spoken, it would have been the thing that would have given him away. And so the installation that I've done with these various packing crates - in the dimensions of the box, he was liberated from -I've used those boxes filled with voices. Because the one thing that Henry Box Brown did when he was liberated from the crate was to sing. That was his first impulse. And I was thinking of how profound that is, not to speak but to sing.
HANSEN: And, of course, you have Billie Holliday singing "Strange Fruit."
Mr. LIGON: Right, exactly. An anti-lynching song. One of the things I was thinking about is we always talk about slavery as an event in the past. And I wanted to contemporize that in some way, to bring it forward. And so there's Billie Holiday singing but then there's KRS-One, a rapper, singing Sound Of Da Police, you know, who he makes this connection between police control and overseers...
Mr. LIGON: ...as a way to sort of bring the notion of slavery into the present.
(Soundbite of song, Sound Of Da Police)
KRS-ONE (Hip-hop artist): (Rapping) And then my great, great, great, great, when it's gonna stop? Woop-woo. That's the sound of da police. Woop-woop. That's the sound of the beast.
HANSEN: This strikes me as the kind of exhibition, it is attracting school kids. But, you know, I'm seeing, you know, the young black faces coming up from the schools and, you know, looking at a successful black artist who's been trained in fine art and yet is using, you know, some of those raw materials. I mean, do you see yourself as a role model in some way?
Mr. LIGON: I don't see myself as a role model. But I do think that - my mother used to say that when I told her I wanted to be an artist, her famous line was: the only artists I've ever heard of are dead. And what she meant was shed heard of Picasso, but Picasso's dead. So it just wasn't in her experience, though she was happy to send me to classes after school, at the Metropolitan Museum and pottery classes. But I dont think she had the sense that one could be an artist, because there wasnt anyone in my family who had done that. And so, I think I'm not a role model but I guess just by example it would be harder for some parent to say you can't be an artist, because here I am.
HANSEN: And in the last room youre working with neon. And we have three signs. Each one is America. There seems to be in America unplugged...
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: ...on one wall, a flashing America, and an America neon but with some of the letters transposed.
Mr. LIGON: This whole body of work came out of thinking about Dickens.
Mr. LIGON: A Tale of Two Cities.
Mr. LIGON: The very famous opening chapter that: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And the first neon I made was in 2006 using the word America. And I used the word America because I realized after trying to think of a piece using the Dickens text, I realized actually Dickens is talking about a moment that a society is in where everything is happening and nothing is happening; everything is booming and everyone is poor, you know. And sort of the dichotomies between rich and poor, progress and going backwards seemed to be where we were at in America. Those things going on at the same time seemed, to me, embodied in the word America. So thats why its blinking erratically, like its shorted out.
(Soundbite of drums)
HANSEN: And the one to the left with some of the letters turned around, as if we're looking at it like its a neon sign in a window and we're looking through the window.
Mr. LIGON: Right. Thats actually the word America but I realized that if you turn the letters around, it makes a very strange word. It's still the word America, but I literally turned each letter around. But because the A and the M and the I in the word America are symmetrical letters, when you turn them around they seem to be facing you the right way.
Mr. LIGON: Even though the other letters, the E, the R and the C are backwards. And so the sense that the word faces you and turns away from you at the same time is what I was interested in.
HANSEN: All right. Glenn Ligon, thank you so much.
Mr. LIGON: Thank you. It was fun.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: Glenn Ligon, America will be at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York until June 5th. Go to our website, npr.org to see images of Glenn Ligons art, and you can hear him talk about some of the other works featured in the exhibition.
Youre listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.