Review: Glenn Ligon — “America” — The Modern in Fort Worth

[Originally written for The Dallas Morning News]

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Glenn Ligon is widely regarded as one of the most influential American artists of the past two-decades. “America” shows us a 25-year arc of his drawings, paintings, prints, neon installations and even sounds that emanate from crates that pay homage to Henry “Box” Brown — known for escaping slavery in a two-by-three foot box.

Integrating image and text is popular in the art world but it’s often done clumsily and without impressive effect. Ligon is an exception. He appropriates verbiage from an array of sources: placards carried by sanitation workers; comedian Richard Pryor; James Baldwin; Gertrude Stein, Malcolm X and a host of others. They run from the strident to the scatological.

Nonetheless, Ligon’s work deserves a place in hallowed halls and it has already earned that honor via the artist’s enduring relationship with the Whitney Museum in New York. The Modern is yet another impressive coup. Ligon is gay and African-American and he’s arrived with vigor on the art scene by giving form to stereotypes and things left un-uttered in “polite” society. To state it mildly, Ligon shakes things up — and good for him.

Ligon’s silk-screened images of the Million Man March are especially powerful. They remind us of a time most of us would prefer to elide from public consciousness. Lignon refuses us the luxury of amnesia. We see hands thrust into the air, clenched fists and Louis Farrakhan’s visage. The pieces are huge and imposing.

As the show’s name insinuates, America is being shown to us. We’re asked to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are and how we assimilate “the Other.” Art is supposed to make us uncomfortable. This show makes us squirm but it’s so elegantly curated that it’s obviously a trove of artifacts that merit examination. Think of it as a secular passion play — and don’t miss it.

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