Like a haunting mantra, the words "I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background" repeat again and again, smearing into abstract gestures on the pristine white panel. Painted one year after his first solo show, Glenn Ligon's I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background is an early example of his text paintings, which incorporate quotes about African American identity from works by black writers. The artist took the phrase from Zora Neale Hurston's 1928 essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," the author's account of leaving the safety of an African American town and confronting racism for the first time. Only when she came in to contact with white people, did the author realize that her identity was not purely crafted by her own desires and perceptions; she connoted something dangerous to those outside of her community. Through generations of physical and emotional violence, white society has constructed a vision of what it means to be black and projected this idea on to African Americans. In constructing this identity, white subjects could identify themselves as everything black people were not and vice-versa. Thus black and white identities have been intertwined, as ideas of identity are often based on this negative relationship. As a gay black man, Ligon strives to find a way to express his individual identity in a way that does not rely on the implicitly racist visual and literary culture of white America. In this struggle, Ligon shows that black and white identities are quintessentially linked.
Almost as a key to decode Hurston's declaration on the surface of the panel, Ligon includes a quote that explains exactly how white society defined itself in opposition to black society. The text begins with a question directed to James Baldwin, a gay black writer active throughout the civil rights movement: "you've said that your darkness reminds white men of their death." Baldwin answers: "if you are a Negro dealing with peoplewho never look at you, then you have to figure out one day what they are looking at." In the 1960s at the time of this interview, many white people would evade the glance of black people, refusing to confront them as individuals. According to Baldwin, this was because: "The white man knew he would not like to be me. If you move out of your place everything is changed. If I'm not what that white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is," (quoted in C. Bigsby, ed., The Black American Writer, Deland, 1969, pp. 199-216). Without the African American foil, white identity would cease to exist, in essence, would die.
To build a positive identity in opposition to black society, white America had created a visual cannon made up primarily of conquered, subdued black masculinity. In an effort to avoid such repressive imagery, Ligon, who began painting abstractly, turned to the texts that past generations of African Americans had written in an effort to make sense of their identity in a white world as source material for his artwork. "Language could address the demolition of black masculinity prevalent within American culture, allowing the black body to be disentangled from the graphic "scenes of subjection" in which it is continually emplotted," (H. Copeland, "Untitled (Jackpot)", exh. cat., Glenn Ligon - Some Changes, Ontario, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery Harbourfront centre, p. 124).
Of course, the use of text in painting pre-dates Ligon. Most notably in the early 1960s, Ruscha and Indiana disconnected words from their meaning, turning them in to floating signifiers - artistic objects that could be manipulated for their formal and aesthetic properties. Unlike these artists, Ligon relies strongly on the meaning of the language that he deploys. For this reason, his use of text is more similar to the works of Christopher Wool and On Kawara. Aesthetically, both Wool and Ligon subvert the confines of the stencil, painting gesturally and leaving behind the evidence of their hand on the painting. However, unlike Wool, the language that Ligon uses is fiercely personal and linked to the history of his people. While Wool culls language from the streets, cinema, and other avenues of popular culture, Ligon uses the very publications that are the heart of African American self-expression. The use of such language is in many ways a claim of existence--a cry that the artist and his people are alive and can find avenues of self-expression not mediated through white bigotry. For this reason, his use of text is closely related to On Kawara's postcards.
Starting in the sixties, Kawara sent postcards with messages such as "I am still alive" and "I am not going to commit suicide. Don't Worry". These simple yet disturbing statements are testaments to individual presence in the world and also highlight the interconnectivity of life and death. By using the word "still," Kawara asserts that at any moment one can cease to exist. The very statement of being alive is also a testament to the idea that death is imminent. Seeming opposites are intrinsically linked - death is the end of life and life is the absence of death. One is negatively related to the other. In many ways, this relationship is very similar to that between white and black Americans described by Baldwin in the 1960s.
Ligon's work, like Kawara's postcards, is a complex statement on what it means to have an individual presence in the world. The identity of the self is always predicated to a certain degree on the society that one exists in. Others will use the identities of the other to bolster their own idea of themselves. Ligon's work formally speaks to this as the black text would not be visible without the white ground - identity only becomes legible against the screen of the other. In this relationship that has been parasitic for so much of Western history, the state of affairs has changed drastically, so that perhaps this relationship can become increasingly symbiotic overtime.