File Note 91: Glenn Ligon - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Megan Ratner



Call and Response Images References Quote Biography Credits

Call and Response

Glenn Ligon draws on repetition, silence and a teenager’s nervous slip to limn the expectant pause between call and response. When eighteen-year-old Daniel Hamm, arrested in the 1964 Harlem riots, was interviewed following a severe beating by the police, he described the officers’ refusal to get him to a hospital unless he was bleeding. ‘I had to like open the bruise up,’ Hamm explained, ‘and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them’— except he says ‘the blues blood.’ Listen for it in the opening of Steve Reich’s 1966 composition Come Out, an ongoing source for Ligon. In an electric blue familiar to New Yorkers from the lettering on police cars, the words in Untitled (Bruise/Blues) hang in the air as if spoken. Alternately blinking in tandem and out of synch, they mismatch response to call. 

This dynamic runs through Ligon’s work, which is often about correspondences between the past and the present. In contrast to his customary sources such as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, or Jean Genet, the elements of the Call and Response exhibition come from music and stand-up, specifically Steve Reich and Richard Pryor. Through their work, Ligon continues to pose questions about what is noticed and what escapes notice, in particular with regard to the bodies of black men.

In Come Out #4 and #5 (2014), the non-stop text of the silkscreen paintings, is the portion of Hamm’s interview —‘come out to show them’—  that Reich incorporated into his composition. Back in the days of reel-to-reel, Reich ran a single loop on two channels; first together, then slowly out of phase. Shortened to ‘come out to show them’, the phrase reverberates as the channels separate, becoming a canon first for two, then four, and finally eight voices. Ligon captures the unsettling density of that sound by gradually increasing the density of his text: during the screen printing process, individual screens were shifted left or right to intermittently crowd the text in one area or another. The repetition is percussive. As you read, you feel a beat. Come Out #4 and #5 are each composed of tiled, smaller sections, whose demarcations order and restrict: no sequence expands beyond its own border. Mottled and streaked, their surfaces seem bruised. Like the non-dialogue of Untitled (Bruise ⁄ Blues), the elements of Come Out #4 and #5 are discrete.

Anchoring the paintings and the sculpture is Live, a silent video piece featuring various clips of Richard Pryor onstage in Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. Splintering him into body, shadow, face, mouth, hand, and cock, Ligon makes it impossible to take Pryor in whole. It’s a peep. You endeavour a narrative, the separated images like cels of a cartoon, the art form from which Pryor said he learned more than any other. You see him almost disappear, retreating into himself until he seems little more than hair and moustache. You can see the anguish in his smile. Though not conventionally effeminate, Pryor’s beautiful hands gesture with surprising delicacy. On stage, he was both receptive and in total control, often vacillating between the two. Especially in isolating his hands, Ligon picks up on Pryor’s understated androgyny, even feminine fierceness. (The Live on the Sunset Strip poster depicts a giant Pryor, modelled after Attack of the 50 Foot Woman [1958].)

Pryor ‘most aptly applied the Dionysian signature to work and life,’ 1 unequivocally insisting that Americans drop their characteristic claim to selective innocence. (‘People can’t talk about fucking in America. People say you’re dirty. But if you talk about killing somebody, that’s cool.’ 2) Live’s focus on the body has affinities with Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991–1993) but also with the Runaway series (1993). Like those pieces, Live poses questions about how training your gaze on one aspect to the exclusion of others leads to an overall construct of masculinity, race, sexuality — by the gazer, not the subject of the gaze.

Ligon first incorporated Pryor into his work in 1994, in a series of stenciled quotes from stand-up routines. There was no comedy precedent for Pryor’s often anarchic, expletive rich candor on sex, race and class. Paintings such as Silver Therapy #1 (2006) reveal the punch lines as less joke than aphorism: ‘If I have to die, which I imagine I will, I don’t imagine it, I just know I’m gonna have to — I wanna die like my father. My father died fucking. He did, man. He was fifty-seven, woman was eighteen. He came and went at the same time.’ Or, from the 2007 No Room (Gold) black-on-gold stenciled series: ‘I was a nigger for twenty-three years. I gave that shit up. No room for advancement.’ In these pieces, like Live, Ligon anatomises Pryor’s act, especially the simultaneous coming and going, the limbo between being and non-being. Ligon shifts Pryor’s act from entertainment to cultural artifact. (Even borrowing something of the Russian icon palette for the No Room (Gold) paintings.) But they are also deeply personal. An ardent Star Trek fan in his teens, Ligon nixed a possible move to Vulcan, planet of suppressed emotion, as it would have meant forfeiting his Richard Pryor records.3 

Throughout Call and Response, the unseen and unheard presences of Hamm and Pryor suggest the existential difficulties of simply being a black-skinned man in America. In the fifty years since the Harlem riots, in the forty years since Pryor made explicit to his white audience what was implicit for his black fans, dismally little has changed. Despite a more blended civic life — working, learning, deploying together — Americans for the most part live and socialise in parallel worlds. In Call and Response, Ligon makes a subtle, elegant case for recognising the blinkered view that comes from keeping those worlds unimaginatively distinct.


1 Williams, John A. and Dennis A. If I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor. (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991) p.2

2 Pryor, Richard. Pryor Convictions. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995) p.129

3 Ligon, Glenn. Yourself in the World. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and Whitney Museum of Art, 2011) p.31

Ault, Julie. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. (Göttingen, Germany: SteidlDangin, 2006)

Copeland, Huey. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

English, Darby. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007)

Kennedy, Adrienne. People Who Led to My Plays. (New York: Knopf, 1986)

Moten, Fred. In The Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

Sebald, W.G and Hulse, Michael. The Rings of Saturn. (London: New Directions, 1998)

Sullivan, John Jeremiah. ‘The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie’, New York Times Magazine, April 13 2014 

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros., 1982

Cache (Hidden). Dir. Michael Haneke. (Sony Pictures Classics, 2005)

Killer of Sheep. Dir. Charles Burnett (Milestone Films, 1977)

Weekend. Dir. Andrew Haigh. (Peccadillo Pictures, 2011)

Solaris. Dir. Andrei  Tarkovsky. (S.N., 1972)

The Wire. Prod. David Simon et al. (HBO, 2002–2008)

 ‘But most curious of all, my attempts to describe my experiences of silence, even to people who wanted to hear because
they love me, forced me to feel that silence itself resists all attempts to talk about it, to try to theorise, explain or even describe it. This is not, I think, because silence is ‘without meaning’. It is ‘outwith language’. ‘Outwith’ is a wonderful Scottish word for which standard English appears to have no exact equivalent — outwith means ‘outside of’, ‘not within the circumference of something else’. ‘Without’ is necessarily negative and suggests that something is lacking.’ Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence


Glenn Ligon (b. 1960) lives and works in New York, USA. Ligon received a BA from Wesleyan University in 1982, and attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 1985. A mid-career retrospective of Ligon’s work, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA ran at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2011 and toured to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Ligon has been thesubject of solo museum exhibitions at the Power Plant, Toronto; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Studio Museum in Harlem; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia and Kunstverein Munich. His work was included in Documenta XI in 2002, and the 1991 and 1993 Whitney Biennials.


Megan Ratner is an independent critic based in New York.

Supported by the Glenn Ligon Patrons Circle.