Glenn Ligon

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Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009


Narrator: The painted neon sculptures depicting the word “America” in this gallery were inspired by the opening of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Glenn Ligon spoke to us about it on the occasion of his retrospective at the Whitney in 2011. 

Glenn Ligon: The first neons that I did were at the moment when our economy was booming, but we were in a war in Afghanistan. Well, we're still in a war with Afghanistan, but since then Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, was elected. 

Narrator: Ligon began to think of America in terms of dichotomies, contrasts, and light and dark. Neon, sometimes painted black to seal in the light, became his new medium. In this work, Rückenfigur, it takes a moment to realize that Ligon hasn’t spelled AMERICA backward. Each individual letter is flipped to face the wall. But because the “A”, the “M,” and the “I” are symmetrical, they still seem to face out towards us.

Scott Rothkopf is the Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Director of Programs at the Whitney. 

Scott Rothkpof: And that's one of the really interesting things about this piece, I think, this idea of America, this country, this word facing away from us but at the same time addressing us. There's a sense of vulnerability in this piece—you see the back of this sign in a way, these wires that dangle down. You see the fragile connections between these letters, which I think suggests the sense of America, this country, as a confederacy that's both united and sometimes divided. And I think that all of those things, in a way, function metaphorically for where this country is at this moment.

Adam Weinberg: This work’s title, Rückenfigur, is a German term that describes a figure in a painting who is seen from the back contemplating a grand landscape. In many ways, Glenn Ligon puts us in that position—through his work we are confronted with the vast and contradictory landscape that is America today.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), Rückenfigur, 2009. Neon and paint, 24 × 145 1/2 × 5 in. (61 × 369.6 × 12.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 2011.3a-I © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles