Ligon’s White paintings borrow text from the film theorist Richard Dyer’s 1988 essay “White,” which investigated the invisibility of cultural representations of whiteness. As Ligon explained, “One of the claims that Dyer makes is that whiteness is very difficult to analyze because it operates as the norm, and so things that seem normal are very difficult to see, but that things that seem special or different seem glaringly visible. He says that blackness seems very easy and visible to analyze, whereas whiteness seems to disappear when you start to talk about it. And this sort of question of the visibility and invisibility of race in our culture was one of the things I was really interested in exploring in the work.” (Excerpt from an audio program, MoMA2000: Open Ends (1960-2000), September 2000 – March 2001) Using a plastic alphabet stencil, Ligon painted each letter of Dyer’s words atop gesso with waxy oil stick, advancing through the text letter by letter until reaching the bottom of the painting. Ligon repeated this process multiple times, stenciling over the letters to lend them richer color and dimensionality than his previous paintings. With sheer force, Ligon then rubbed over the text with a more expensive oil stick containing higher oil content, enveloping the surface in a lustrous blackness that reverberates with an all-over static. The demanding labor involved in the painstaking application of each letter along the length of the picture is palpable as the letters begin to lose regularity in the resultant smears and imperfections. Through this process, the fragmentary text becomes less visible in places while retaining legibility in others, creating a struggle for the viewer in deciphering what is painted. Certain phrases emerge—“The Godfather is not about white,” “what being white means,” “whiteness appears intractable”—while others are obscured. Shrouding the words in the thickened strata of paint formally engages in the very dichotomy of visibility and invisibility that forms the substantive foundation of the text.
Defined by a seductive braille-like relief, Ligon’s painting registers a syncopated rhythm in the text that marches across its every line, often stopping short at the right edge and starting anew on the next line. The transcription of Dyer’s essay in the White paintings is more disjointed than in previous works, sometimes leaving out entire passages in the parenthetical gap between the end of one line as it meets the edge of the picture plane and the start of the next. White #2 encourages sustained attention to apprehend its vigorous structure, akin to Ad Reinhardt’s Black paintings. Just as James Baldwin reflected on how Americans have made “an abstraction of the Negro,” here the application of oilstick and gesso on canvas combined with the dense overlaying of text create an overall abstraction in relief. Endowing language with material volume, weight, and force, Ligon’s text verges on illegibility by the sheer textural density of its surface. Operating in the art historical tradition of the monochrome, Scott Rothkopf commended this epic series of paintings: “For Ligon, the temptation to make a black monochrome about ‘whiteness’ and, by extension, ‘blackness,’ was no doubt as great as the risk that such a painting could end up being a one-note comment on those terms and on one of modernism's most vaunted signposts. Yet Ligon resisted that peril by creating canvases of such semantic and visual interest that he succeeded in subtly elaborating not only upon Dyer’s text but also on the history of the monochrome itself.” (Scott Rothkopf, Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum (and travelling), Glenn Ligon, 2011, pp. 41-42)
Glenn Ligon's artistic output is amongst the crowning achievements of a generation of conceptually motivated artists whose works interrogate social themes of race, sexuality and gender. Working across painting, printmaking, neon sculpture, video, and installation, Ligon explores a complex melding of the visual and textual to invite viewers to contemplate issues of race, sexuality, representation, and language. Harnessing the potent sensory dimension of words akin to Ed Ruscha and Christopher Wool, while exploring rich painterly rhythms of repetition like Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, Ligon’s painting draws on a variety of textual and pictorial sources. As content bewitchingly merges with form, the coincident process of reading and looking permeates White #2, creating a surface rich with affective potential and stunning resonance. Wrestling with the extraordinarily sensuous, painterly surface, White #2 seduces the viewer into a process of semantic interpretation. In Ligon’s hands, blackness becomes read and felt as we navigate the rhetorical discourse concealed within a pitch dark veil of lavish obsidian dusk. In White #2, Ligon turns the lights off, and for the first time, allows us to see.
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