Glenn Ligon – Condition Report Essay
Glenn Ligon was born in the Bronx in 1960. He attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (art school) in 1985, where he was later honored in a retrospective exhibit, Glenn Ligon: America, organized by Scott Rothkopf, which opened in March 2011 before touring nationally. Ligon’s paintings and sculptures examine cultural and social identity through literature, Afrocentric coloring books, and photographs (Rittenbach). He is best known for his landmark series of highly textured text-based paintings, where he reveals the ways in which the legacy of slavery, the civil rights movement, and sexual politics inform our understanding of contemporary American society. Politically confrontational and formally rigorous, Ligon’s Condition Report works to explore issues of history, language and identity within the African American man.
Condition Report is based on Ligon’s painting, (Untitled) I Am a Man (1988)—currently housed in the Smithsonian. Ligon based this 1988 painting on the signs held by the Memphis Sanitation Workers who marched with Dr. MLK Jr. in 1968 shortly before his assassination. Ernest C. Withers, an iconic photographer who illustrated the history of life in the segregated South from the 1950s and 1960s during the civil rights movement. “Withers has the largest catalog of any individual photographer covering the civil rights movement in the South” (Peterson). The photograph Ligon used features a mass of men uplifting placards stating “I Am a Man” at the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. This march was prompted by the deaths of two coworkers from faulty equipment, the strikers marched to peacefully protest low wages and unsafe working conditions. They took ownership in the slogan “I Am a Man,” which influenced Ligon to first paint the iconic signs, which later developed into his 2000 print diptych, Condition Report.
Ligon recalls having seen the iconic photograph when he was an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Ligon was captivated by the overall scope of their struggle some two decades after the event was documented. He differentiated the painting from the original signs, avoiding a one-to-one relationship by reconstructing the line breaks. He maintains the original black-on-white of the sign, his choice to paint the black letters in bold enamel calls attention to a black “Man.”
Throughout his career, Ligon has used “blackness” as a base for both personal and collective experience. The rough surface of the painting, which Ligon later documented by having a condition report made as an additional work of art, seems to key the scars and struggles of the work’s great subject. Condition Reports scars and rough surface are a symbolism to the history of what African Americans have gone through on a daily basis.
Condition Report is a diptych that Ligon made in 2000. The Left panel is a straightforward print of the 1988 painting while the right panel is a print that includes the overlay annotations typical of a museum “condition report.” A condition report is a tool artists and museum professionals use to keep track of the changing physical condition of artworks and their attendant structures. The reports help to keep track of the physical health of art and are very important when it comes to evaluating the value of work (“Condition Reports”). Condition reports are a safeguard against future destruction of the work and help to cover liability for damaged work.
Ligon had a painting conservator produce the condition report (Leaney), an annotated print, which highlights imperfections, cracks and other damage to the work which have occurred over time. In contrast to the left, the right panel—the condition report–has squiggles, hashes, dots and other symbols to indicate the various imperfections in the painting due to age and wear. In placing the two side-by-side, Ligon is stopping us to think, making us aware of the passage of time and our fading memories, in case we forget.
The two prints are hung side-by-side, and together they are a reminder of the passage of time, both materially and historically. Ligon emphasizes the degradation not only of the material components, but also the subject matter, through reproduction and continuous exposure. Condition Report highlights the passage of time and draws attention to the way memories fade. Rather than adding to that, by taking the reproduction of the placard and putting them in a gallery, Ligon is focusing attention on the struggle and keeping it alive in the minds of anyone who views the art piece.
“I Am a Man” was a simple but powerful message, which drew attention to the inhumanity of treating people as inferior based on the color of their skin. This piece also carried the simple demand for equal treatment. Obviously the issue with relations in American is being displayed in the art, but there is a double meaning of the diptych. Pertaining to the art world, this piece itself is layered to criticize and comment on the art world that fails keep such an important work in better condition. Condition Report is an example of how art can deteriorate overtime where it is not given the care that it should have. Pertaining to the world beyond the art museum, it also shows how for many people the struggle for recognition as equal human beings is still far from over.
“Condition Reports.” Getting Your Sh*t Together. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Leaney, Gareth. ““Condition Report” by Glenn Ligon.” Gareths Art Blog. N.p., 25 Aug. 2010. Web. 11 July 2016.
“National Gallery of Art – Recent Acquisitions.” National Gallery of Art – Recent Acquisitions. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 July 2016.
Peterson, Alison J. “Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85.” Nytimes.com. N.p., 17 Oct. 2007. Web. 7 July 2016.
Rittenbach, Kari. “Glenn Ligon, ‘Condition Report’ 2000.” Tate. N.p., Jan. 2012. Web. 7 July 2016.