Glenn Ligon's Untitled (I am a man), 1988

Glenn Ligon
Untitled (I am a man), 1988

Painting

Oil and enamel

Unique

Mixing oil and enamel, "Untitled (I am a man)" derives from the defiant placards worn in 1968 by striking sanitation workers in segregated Memphis, Tenn. To the general indifference of city leaders, two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed in a malfunctioning garbage truck. Their mangled bodies gave physical heft to protesters' large signs: "I AM A MAN." The existential outcry was held aloft on sticks or attached to the marchers' chests.

Ligon's painting features identical typeface painted on a white ground. Look closely, though, and the white surface is layered over a black skin of under-paint. The surface is smudged, worn, cracked -- evidence of use, as in those disruptive weeks in Memphis, but also a sign of tattered purity.

The artist, black and gay, painted it in the final full year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Reagan had launched his first term's campaign with a notorious states' rights speech delivered in Philadelphia, Miss., site of a famous civil rights era triple-murder. Once in office, he remained silent about AIDS until the epidemic had ravaged the gay community, leaving more than 20,000 dead. latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/10/a…

Mixing oil and enamel, "Untitled (I am a man)" derives from the defiant placards worn in 1968 by striking sanitation workers in segregated Memphis, Tenn. To the general indifference of city leaders,… more

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