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Undoing Meaning

Updated on February 21, 2017

Glenn Ligon’s Untitled [America] (2006) is not the only neon installation of its kind that he has done. In some versions, the word America contains letters which are reversed, in others it doesn’t; some have the whole word flipped upside down beneath the upright text; he also uses different fonts. Ligon is an artist who often employs text in his work. His paintings, sculptures, and installations reference other works of art, as well as literature and popular culture. He is interested in exploring how these many different sources inform the collective understanding of Black American history and experience. Although he uses some autobiographical images and material at times, he has emphasized that “It’s not about me”. Rather, “It’s about we.”

This statement by Ligon reminds me of the multiple experiences of different people who occupy modernist architecture, as talked about by Jane Rendell in "Site-Writing". A chapter titled "Undoing Architecture" explores the possibilities for understanding how modernist architecture is experienced differently by different types of people at once, as Rendell writes about it using multiple voices. In her preface to this writing experiment, she states, "The feminist poet Audre Lourde once stated that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house": if so, then what other tools do we have at our disposal?

Ligon has certainly invented some tools for discussing the problem of multiple experiences in America, with his text-based art. He addresses ways in which certain voices are historically silenced. By subverting the word "America," he calls into question the meaning and history of the word, and puts it to use for his own purposes as a Black American.

The artist originally came to prominence in the art world for his densely stenciled paintings, in which he would repeat a stenciled word or phrase with an airbrush or wax so many times that it started to become illegible. One of his most famous works, “Black Like Me No. 2” (1992), was purchased by the Obamas for the White House art collection. What makes Untitled, and the other works like it, so powerful, is not just its iconic universality, but its relation to the artist's own personal experience. Like neon works by the artist Tracy Emin, there is an underlying autobiographical meaning to these neon signs. It tells us that “America” begins as a personal experience, but then becomes widely understood and shared.


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