Untitled is a neon sculpture spelling out the word ‘AMERICA’ in the large capital letters of a typewriter script, reminiscent in form of the stencilled characters Ligon consistently employs in his text-based paintings. Each individual letter in Untitled is comprised of a single neon tube mounted against the white wall of the gallery as if ‘free-floating’. Two electricity cables looping through the characters form the only visual or structural connections between them, and drop neatly to the floor and along the wall to intentionally visible power supply units.
Four variations of this neon sculpture exist, in three subtle versions. For the work in Tate’s collection, which is the earliest in the series, the more or less autonomous neon tubes are fully coated in a layer of black paint such that the presence of electricity can be detected only where light pierces through minor cracks or chips in the applied surface. In another of the versions, a layer of black paint covers the face of the neon tubes only, which consequently throw a ‘shadow’ of escaped light back against the wall, producing an outer glow surrounding the type when viewed in installation.
Ligon’s neons expand a tradition of conceptual art works executed in light, from American artists Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman to Ligon’s British contemporaries Cerith Wyn Evans, Tracey Emin and Martin Creed. But Ligon’s urge to experiment in this medium can be more precisely traced to an essay he published in Artforum, ‘Black Light: David Hammons and the Poetics of Emptiness’. On the difficulty of transcending identity politics through art, Ligon quoted a poignant remark made by the artist David Hammons regarding the light sculptures of James Turrell: ‘I would love to do that because that also could be very black. You know, as a black artist, dealing just with light … I’m trying to get to that, but I’m not free enough yet. I still feel I have to get my message out.’ (David Hammons, quoted in Ligon 2004, p.244.)
The captivating paradox of ‘black light’ thus encouraged Ligon to investigate the production capabilities of a neon shop located below his Brooklyn studio. In 2005 the artist’s first neon relief, Warm Broad Glow, appropriated the writer Gertrude Stein’s turn of phrase ‘negro sunshine’. Unlike the singular treatment of text in his paintings, the script, size and combinations of light and dark in Ligon’s various neons emphasise or contextualise his chosen maxims to produce powerful interpretations. According to the curator Scott Rothkopf, for the almost twelve-foot span of Untitled, ‘America looms large and powerful, yet its letters are thin, open and permeable’ (Rothkopf 2011, p.47). An unofficial moniker, the name itself is reprised from Andy Warhol’s book of black and white photographs, America, published in 1985. Ligon’s work also suggests itself to be a type of national portrait, while alluding to the binary hope and oppression of political reality. He has described the origin of the piece:
[It] was when the U.S. first went into Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember seeing a picture a couple of years ago of a little Afghani kid, no more than 13, standing outside the ruins of his house that had been mistakenly bombed by Americans, and several members of his family had been killed. He was bemoaning these unjust killings and cursing America, but also saying that America needs to live up to its promise … There is this sense that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light. That’s how the piece came about, because I was thinking about Dickens’s ‘the best of times, the worst of times’. Yes, that’s where America is.
(Glenn Ligon, quoted in Jason Moran, ‘Glenn Ligon’, Interview, July 2008, p.84.)
Glenn Ligon, ‘Black Light: David Hammons and the Poetics of Emptiness’, Artforum, vol.43, no.1, September 2004.
Leora Maltz-Leca, ‘Glenn Ligon’, frieze, issue 140, June–August 2011, p.196.
Scott Rothkopf, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2011, reproduced p.235, no.76.