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About the Whitney

As the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents the full range of twentieth-century and contemporary American art, with a special focus on works by living artists. The Whitney is dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American art, and its collection—arguably the finest holding of twentieth-century American art in the world—is the Museum's key resource. The Museum's signature exhibition, the Biennial, is the country's leading survey of the most recent developments in American art.

Innovation has been a hallmark of the Whitney since its beginnings. It was the first museum dedicated to the work of living American artists and the first New York museum to present a major exhibition of a video artist (Nam June Paik in 1982). Such figures as Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Cindy Sherman were given their first museum retrospectives by the Whitney. The Museum has consistently purchased works within the year they were created, often well before the artists became broadly recognized. The Whitney was the first museum to take its exhibitions and programming beyond its walls by establishing corporate-funded branch facilities, and the first museum to undertake a program of collection-sharing (with the San Jose Museum of Art) in order to increase access to its renowned collection.

Designed by architect Renzo Piano and situated between the High Line and the Hudson River, the Whitney's new building vastly increases the Museum’s exhibition and programming space, providing the most expansive view ever of its unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary American art.

Glenn Ligon

Solo en Inglès

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