For over 30 years, the artist has been making work that speaks to American history — ambiguous, open-ended, existentially observant. At a time in which the fundamentals of fact and fiction are being questioned, his art captures the truth of a culture in decline.
By Megan O’Grady Portrait by Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont
On a wall in Glenn Ligon’s studio in Brooklyn, there is an astonishing 10-by-45-foot diptych bearing the entire text of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village.” It is rendered in Ligon’s trademark style: painstakingly stenciled black-on-white letters partially covered with a layer of coal dust, which adds both weight and shimmer to Baldwin’s sentences. (“From all available evidence no Black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came,” the essay begins.) During a visit to the studio in May, the words “American soul” leap out. One strains to describe the impact of Ligon’s work in metaphoric language: His art provides its own language; it is its own metaphor. But the feeling he imparts is a kind of force field, asking us, as Baldwin did, where we stand, and where our bodies stand, in space and time, in relation to a history we share but, as a nation, upon which we do not agree.
This new painting is a culmination of a brilliant three-decade-long career — a bookend of sorts, as Ligon puts it. In 1996, he made his first “Stranger in the Village” painting, stenciling fragments of the essay on a gessoed canvas with oil stick, black on black: a visual play on Baldwin’s words, the blackness literally hard to read. (On the other side of Ligon’s studio is a black-on-black triptych of the complete text.) The essay, one of the writer’s most famous, recounts his experiences at age 27 in the hamlet of Leukerbad, where he had been staying with his Swiss boyfriend while finishing his first novel. “It did not occur to me — possibly because I am an American — that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro,” he writes. The alienation Baldwin evokes is total, the simple racism of the village becoming a lens through which he sees with fresh clarity the more elaborated and systematized version of it back home.
“In the beginning, it was not only wanting to be with Baldwin but wanting to be Baldwin,” Ligon tells me when I ask how his relationship with the writer has changed over the years. “This intense identification with his queerness, with his Blackness, but also his engagement with what it means to live in America. In some ways it’s less about the specifics of the words, because I’d always taken his words and made them abstract.” Now that Ligon is 61 and one of the most celebrated artists of our time, he says it took him this long to be able to confront the text of “Stranger in the Village” in its entirety. “I’ve only used it in fragments for the last 20 years,” he says. “And maybe I feel like — calling Dr. Freud — this is a moment where I could tackle that in my work. The literal enormity of the text, in terms of its physical size but also its panoramic-ness, its breadth, its depth, you know?”