Glenn Ligon (American, b. 1960) was born in the Bronx and studied in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. He was included in the much-debated “identity politics” iteration of the Whitney Biennial in 1993, as well as the watershed exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art, organized by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994. The early phase of his career established Ligon as a conceptual artist engaged with the dynamics of race, gender, power, subjectivity, and American history. The legacies of painting as a medium are also activated and contested in Ligon’s monochromatic text-based works in oil-stick, which foreground resonant phrases from the works of writers such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Shelley.
Ligon’s Brooklyn studio was upstairs from Lite-Brite Neon (a neon-fabrication collective founded by Matt Dilling) and it was there that the artist produced his first neon work. Warm Broad Glow (2005) consists of the words “negro sunshine”—from Gertrude Stein’s novella Melanctha (1909)—rendered in three-foot-high neon letters totaling sixteen feet in length. The face of each gigantic letter is painted black, so that the phrase is lit only from the back, casting a coronal glow on the wall in front of which the words seem to float. For his New School installation, commissioned by the curators Silvia Rocciolo and Eric Stark along with the New School Art Collection Advisory Group, Ligon turned to another ancestor in queer American letters, Walt Whitman, and to another suggestive though subtle use of tinted light. The resulting work, For Comrades and Lovers, was Ligon’s first permanent large-scale site-specific commission in New York.
For Comrades and Lovers comprises a frieze of phrases rendered in violet neon, framing the Event Café in the New School University Center with lines from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (originally published in 1855). The café centers on a wide, shallow stairway that doubles as seating for performances and talks and was conceived as a multipurpose space where community members and visitors could gather with students, faculty, and staff. Considering the conjunction of this informal assembly spot with the larger site of learning that is the university, as well as the greater downtown Manhattan location, Ligon observes, “Whitman created a new space in which to consider the American experiment…. The quotes in this piece are reflective of a space of encounter and transience, a restless space that in Whitman’s poems is characteristic of the space of the city.”1 Indeed, Whitman’s poem “Starting from Paumanok” (included in Leaves of Grass) begins with an invocation of the poet’s birthplace on Long Island, called Paumanok in the local Renneiu dialect of the Algonquin people.2 It is from this poem that Ligon selected the passage that, in turn, provides the title for the present volume:
Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
Language-shapers on other shores,
Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left wafted hither,
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more than it deserves,
Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
I stand in my place with my own day here.
- The New School Art Collection pamphlet printed to mark the inauguration of Glenn Ligon’s For Comrades and Lovers on April 29, 2015.
- Evan T. Pritchard, Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People in New York (San Francisco: Council Oak Books, 2002), 305.