This large painting features a slightly off-centered head and shoulders portrait of the enigmatic Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X (1925–1965) floating against a blank, white background, above an inscription of his name in block letters in the bottom-right corner. The top corner of the figure’s cerulean blue suit slips off the right-hand edge of the canvas, leaving a wider margin along the left-hand side. Ligon has filled in the simple contours of Malcolm X’s features with bright swathes of flashe paint: a lemon yellow collar set squarely against a forest green necktie and a blue suit jacket, with deep cocoa skin and closely-cropped, dense black hair. This produces a graphic flattening of the image; the knotted tie and folds of the lapel are respectively absorbed into single, saturated layers, and the figure’s nose is perceptible only by proximity to a thin dark moustache on the upper lip. In the lenses of the eyeglasses and outline of the mouth Ligon has intentionally neglected to introduce colour. Here narrow streaks of inky black detail delineate circles under the eyes, a line of teeth and creases on the lips to provide a rudimentary level of figurative illustration.
Malcolm X (version 2) #1 is part of a series of prints and paintings first shown in Ligon’s 2000 exhibition Coloring at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, where he was artist-in-residence at the time. Just as the seeming straightforwardness of Ligon’s work resists a superficial reading, the show’s reasonably clear title evokes multiple meanings, describing the use of colour in this body of work, its active engagement with race, the perception of subjectivity and the ordinary origins of its source material: children’s colouring books. The work Ligon produced for the exhibition is particularly significant for its directly representational character, which Ligon had previously avoided in preference to modernist abstraction. The artist’s engagement with literature and quotation in his later text-based paintings led him to the Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American literature at the University of Minnesota, where he discovered a trove of ‘Afrocentric’ colouring books dating from the 1970s. In the decade following the Civil Rights Movement, a political emphasis on the writing of American History emerged, including the deliberate circulation of images of blackness and black identity. A relic of this optimistic era, the pedagogical images from these colouring books present figures of Black American history and culture including Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Malcolm X and Isaac Hayes alongside images of boys and girls taking part in banal activities from dancing to basketball.
In an effort to liberate the colouring book images from an ideological stranglehold, Ligon distributed them to schoolchildren of mixed ethnic backgrounds in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota through a series of workshops. Ligon has described how the results of the children’s gestures were unmediated by overt concerns with identity politics:
The drawings have an innocent, unproblematic relationship to questions of race, identity, etc., because the images they are coloring on don’t mean anything to the kids … Everything that comes to mind when I see an image of Malcolm X – his speeches on 125th Street, his red hair, the trip to Mecca, how handsome he was – got mixed in my head with the way the kids colored in the image, and that made the paintings something more than I expected them to be.
(Ligon, quoted in Walker Art Center 2001, p.31.)
Ligon used the erratic styles and unworried markings of the children as a paradigm for applying pigment to his own canvases, which had been silkscreened with outlines from the colouring book illustrations. The process of combining silkscreen and painting was a conscious reference to the work of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In another related work from this series, Malcolm X (version 1) #1, the controversial figure appears as if in drag, with white hair, hot-pink lips and small, defined dots of carmine rouge. A studied yet whimsical treatment of a charged subject on a large-scale, Ligon’s Malcolm X pictures reveal the changing role of iconic images and the meanings they cultivate over time, such that even messages of empowerment wear thin: ‘iconicity is a form of makeover, a colour scheme laid over a neutral surface.’ (Wayne Koestenbaum 2001, p.9.) But Ligon has expressed an ultimate hopefulness in this confusion of historical material, or unintentional iconoclasm: ‘Each generation makes the Malcolm X they need’. (Ligon, quoted in AfroModern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2010, p.78.)
Wayne Koestenbaum, ‘Color Me Glenn’, in Coloring: New Work by Glenn Ligon, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2001.
Glenn Ligon: Some Changes, exhibition catalogue, The Power Plant, Toronto 2005.
Scott Rothkopf (ed.), Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2011.