Glenn Ligon: ‘I AM A MAN’

Gregg Bordowitz

American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s work Untitled (I Am A Man), 1988, references the civil rights protest placard that was carried in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 by striking African-American sanitation workers, and was subsequently taken-up at the Martin Luther King memorial march after the activist’s assassination. ‘Freighted with history’, this work is much more than a straightforward text painting.

Through close examination of Ligon’s career, artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz proposes that Ligon’s Untitled (I Am A Man) and other text-based works are both figurative and historical paintings, which explore and confront the themes of language, identity, race and sexuality.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

The painting Untitled (I Am A Man) makes reference to civil rights protest placard that was carried in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 by striking African-American sanitation workers. It also carries this history in another way in that Martin Luther King went down to address the strikers and in 1968 was assassinated and people also carried this sign ‘I AM A MAN’ at the Martin Luther King memorial march. So, the painting is freighted with all of this history.

Glenn Ligon is one of the most important artists of my generation and he is very prolific, producing paintings, prints, drawings, videos, curating, neons… Glenn Ligon is often called a conceptual artist. I don’t think Glenn Ligon is categorizable. Glenn Ligon uses the protocols and constraints of conceptual art, meaning he creates a number of rules and limits to generate a painting for example.

In the early 1980s, Glenn Ligon was making abstract paintings heavily influenced by Twombly and Johns. And the 80s work that I’m particularly interested in is a series of drawings where Glenn Ligon juxtaposes a drawing of a Brancusi with a rendering of a Nu Nile hair product. And these are really interesting drawings from the mid/late 80s to the early 90s. At the same time, that he was making Expressionist paintings using pinks and reds and actually hand writing selected texts from porn magazines, gay, gay porn magazines.

In the early to mid-80s, Glenn Ligon was looking for a way to use text figuratively. And this is considered to be, by many, one of his achievements. Many of the paintings he is known for are large, can be up to eight to ten feet tall, some of the most famous ones were done on doors, actual wooden doors. He’ll treat the surface with a white/greyish ground that may have tints-all or pigment mixed into that, there’s actually colour underneath there. And then he will choose a text and make stencils and use oil stick to paint in the text. He’ll use the same stencil and the stencil is proportioned to the width of the painting, but not all of the statement can fit directly onto the painting. Sometimes he’ll leave a letter or two letters and just follow on the next line down. As he is using the oil stick to execute the statement, he uses the same stencil which holds onto the oil and holds onto the oil stick, so the line and the letters become thicker and denser to the point where you see that the painting has a kind of weight. It starts out with a more or less clear line around the edges of the letters but becomes almost a block of hue at the bottom. And many of his works are drawn from quotations that come from James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Zora Neal Hurston, Sojourner Truth, many many sources.

He arrived in 1988 at this very special painting Untitled (I Am A Man). It’s a portrait orientation so it is as Darby English says both an abstraction and a figurative painting that uses language towards the end of figuration. Untitled: ‘I Am A Man’ is often referred to as the first selected text painting, it is not. It is also not a stencil painting. This painting is painted the way a sign painter would paint a painting. And Glenn Ligon would use two different paints with two different drying times; a sign painting enamel and a fine art oil paint. And he didn’t realise that the two different drying times would produce these web-like cracks and these irregularities all over the surface, but he chose to retain that.

So, in painting Untitled (I Am A Man), 1988, Glenn was interested in making a painting, a material fact that we can contemplate now that is freighted with all this history, but its really a portal or a terminus for the viewer to engage with a physical object and contemplate its meaning now. Glenn was thinking about figures like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin when he painted Untitled (I Am A Man). Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin are both well-known civil rights activists. Baldwin is certainly a well-known writer, they were both African-American and they were both gay and they both experienced homophobia from every side. Bayard Rustin is unfortunately not a very well-remembered figure, but he was central to the civil rights movement, he worked very closely with King, he was one of the main organisers of the ‘63 march on Washington. It wouldn’t be until the ‘80s that queer folks like me, and activists would look to the history to see, to recover these figures who were very important in quite a number of different struggles, who were then forgotten or taken out of the official history because of the shame around their sexuality.

There is a specific demand placed on people who have been historically excluded from the art worlds. So, women, people of colour, queer people, are often burdened with the demand or the curiosity of autobiographical content, when other artists with privilege don’t necessarily have to make work that comes from them or is tied to them. All of his work is freighted with a tremendous amount of history. Yet, everything is restated in the present, as a material fact, that we have to confront now. So, I would argue, especially around Untitled (I Am A Man), but other works as well, that Glenn is not a sign painter, he is not a text painter only, he is a figurative painter but much more than that, he has genuinely figured out an ingenious way to make text paintings that are figurative paintings, that are historical paintings, referring to many different genres. While mobilising history as a biographical form of content, without referring to himself.

If Glenn Ligon’s work is about identity, its about dismantling the ways that identities are constructed, and that people are constrained by those constructions. Glenn Ligon’s work makes me most aware of my existential now.


Alamy Stock Photo

AP Archive

Bridgeman Images

Getty Images



Original Composition



All images © Glenn Ligon; courtesy of the artist,
Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles,
and Thomas Dane Gallery, London


Untitled (Four Etchings), 1992


The Orange and Blue Feelings, 2003


Untitled (I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance), 2006


No. 291 (Language), 1988


Endless Column / Nu Nile (Yellow), 1985


Untitled (I don’t really know why it happened…), 1985


Untitled (Four Etchings), 1992


Untitled (I Am Somebody), 1990


Prisoner of Love #1 (Study), 1992


“Learning Disability and a Temper” (Profile Series), 1990-1991


Untitled (Invisible Man) #1, 1994


Another Country (After James Baldwin), 2016


Untitled (I am an Invisible Man), 1991


Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988


Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991-1993


Hands, 1996


Study for Negro Sunshine #121, 2012


Malcolm X (Version 1) #1, 2000


Excerpt, 2009


Double America, 2012


Special Thanks to Megan N. Liberty



US MLK Witnesses

AP Archive


National Guard Soldiers Watch as Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Bettmann / Getty Images


Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Bettman / Getty Images


The April 5, 1968, edition of The New York Times

announces the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hearst Newsreel / Getty Images


Fifty Days at Iliam: Ilians in Battle

Cy Twombly, 1978

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA /

Gift (exchange) of Samuel S White 3rd

& Vera White, 1989 / Bridgeman Images


Target with Four Faces – Jasper Johns, 1955

Peter Horee / Alamy Stock Photo


3th April 1972, African/American author James Baldwin,

(1924-1987) at the London launch of his new book ‘No Name on the Street’

Popperfoto / Getty Images


Bayard Rustin at the Citywide Committee for Integration, 2nd February 1964

Patrick A. Burns / New York Times Co. / Getty Images

Untitled (I am a Man)’, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Jonah Westerman, ‘Glenn Ligon, Condition Report 2000’, in Performance At Tate: Into the Space of Art, Tate Research Publication, 2016

Glenn Ligon Studio‘, Official Website

Benoit Loiseau, ‘How artist Gregg Bordowitz changed the way the world saw aids’, i-D, 6 February 2017

Dr. Jordana Moore Saggese, ‘Identity Politics: From the Margins to the Mainstream’,  Smarthistory, 9 August 2015

Jeff Chang, ‘The Ruins of the Culture Wars’, Walker Reader, 10 November 2014

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

American Art in the 1960s

American Art in the 1960s 59:52 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

'American Art in the 1960s' examines key figures in the realisation of the era’s major movements | Showing until 30th October, 2022

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things 17:36 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Curator Carol Jacobi shines a light on the career of artist Isabel Rawsthorne (1912 – 1992), “a missing link of 20th century art”.

Surrealism: Imagining A New World

Surrealism: Imagining A New World 8:17 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Why did Surrealism appeal to artists across the world?