Encounters and Collisions: Glenn Ligon looks back on history in his latest, exploratory exhibition

Exploratory in Exhibition
'Mappa' by Alighiero Boetti, 1990-1991. Courtesy of Alighiero Boetti by SIAE 2015
(Image credit: David Regen)

Two years ago, Glenn Ligon started writing letters to artists whose work had made an impression on him in his life, asking if he could borrow that particular work for an exhibition.

Some of these short letters - written simply and adoringly, almost like teenage fan letters - are published in the catalogue of the show, now open at the Nottingham Contemporary (opens in new tab). They reveal so much about the nature of this wonderful, highly personal exhibition curated by Ligon.

While some of the letters were sent to living artists, others are letters that Ligon would have sent those of the past, as if they were still around. To Jean-Michel Basquiat (opens in new tab), for example, he writes: 'We met once…I was shy and you were famous.' He goes on to write that he was an aspiring artist at the time (the late 70s) and didn't know any black artists. He says he knew Basquiat's paintings were important but he didn't know why.

Ligon, who was born in the Bronx in 1960, has put his search for identity as a gay, black man at the centre of his own practice. This exhibition reveals the delicate process by which he found a formal and intellectual vocabulary to explore his identity by borrowing from images and icons.

The show features work by 45 different artists from Andy Warhol to Steve McQueen, as well as Black Panther Party posters, press shots and footage from the 1963 Birmingham Riots.

Seven of Ligon's own works are present, including the 1991 painting 'I lost my voice I found my voice'. This is the message and the rhythm that drives the show. Travelling through the past 50 years of art history and 50 years of Ligon history, you begin to witness how the artist has responded and 'found' a voice to explore different trends, from his early interest in abstract painting to his discovery of conceptual art and film.

There are four rooms, each exploring a different stage in Ligon's own investigations. 'I was interested in how abstraction can be black but is not black,' the artist once said of his early interest in figures such as  Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

In one room hangs a stark, eight-foot Franz Kline abstract in broad black and white brushstrokes; a film featuring Bruce Nauman painting himself white and then black; and 'Valentine', a phallic semi-abstract work in flesh tone and black by de Kooning which Ligon says he used to visit 'every six months or so' at MoMA in New York.

On one level, this show is a curatorial coup, tying together different themes with works from various global collections. But it's also a revealing and sophisticated study of the way in which images are used by society, and how their meaning extends far beyond their gallery contexts.

Exihibition with text in paper

'Untitled (Cheese Popcorn)' by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983. Courtesy of The Estate of Jean-­‐Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris and DACS,  London 2015

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Estate of Jean-­‐Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015)

Coloured Text with paper art

'Black People are the Window and the Breaking of the Window' by William Pope.L, 2004. The Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum Purchase made possible by a gift from Barbara Karp Schuster, New York

(Image credit: William Pope.L)

Children's in farm

'Untitled (from the Troubled Waters Portfolio)' by William Eggleston, 1980. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and Cheim & Read, New York)

At Home, Huey P. Newton Listens

'At Home, Huey P. Newton Listens to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, Berkeley' by Stephen Shames, 1970. 

(Image credit: Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York)

A portrait of Glenn Ligon

A portrait of Glenn Ligon.

(Image credit: Paul Sepuya)

Tate Collection with Exploratory exhibition

'Untitled' by Glenn Ligon, 2006. Tate Collection; Purchased with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2008

(Image credit: Glenn Ligon)

Study for Condition Report with Collection of the artist

'Study for Condition Report (Glenn Ligon and Michael Duffy)' by Glenn Ligon, 1997. Collection of the artist

(Image credit: Ron Amstutz)

The Malcom X with Glenn Ligon

'Malcom X #1 (small version #2)' by Glenn Ligon, 2003. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the Rodney M. Miller Collection)

Afro Margin Four with Chris Ofili

'Afro Margin Four' by Chris Ofili, 2004.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Chris Ofili and David Zwirner, New York/London)

Protests with Charles Moore

'Protests' by Charles Moore, May 1963. Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York

(Image credit: Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York)

A still from Bruce Nauman's 'Flesh to White to Black

A still from Bruce Nauman's 'Flesh to White to Black to Flesh', 1968. 

(Image credit: Courtesy Electronic Arts ntermix EAI), New York, 2015 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London)

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