All America

New York

Left: Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, and Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. Right: Artists Glenn Ligon and Jeff Koons. (Photos: MatthewCarasella/

IT’S BEEN A WHILE since the Whitney Museum felt like it belonged to its hometown artists. Yet on the evening of Wednesday, March 9, it was instantly clear that the opening of “Glenn Ligon: America” had brought out a major crew. Before I could even check my coat, I spotted artists Marilyn Minter, T. J. Wilcox, Joan Jonas, and Anne Collier in a single glance that also took in curators Chrissie Iles, Stefan Kalmar, and Matthew Higgs; novelist Mary Gaitskill; and New Yorker writer Hilton Als. Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg and collectors Adam Sender, Joel Wachs, and Beth Swofford melted into the crowd too, all basking in the glow of Negro Sunshine, the neon sign that Ligon had installed in the street window to announce his midcareer retrospective. “It’s really a good show,” said Wachs. “I mean, really, really good. I mean, really.”

What made the gathering feel even more like a family reunion were onetime Whitney staffers like David Ross, Lisa Phillips, and Thelma Golden, who all helped give Ligon his first big boost. They worked there in the good old days of the 1980s and ’90s, when the museum routinely set the public’s teeth on edge with its unconventional biennials and step-off-the-plank shows like Golden’s “Black Male”––the days when identity politics and art that looked like food or sex or trash made a dent in a wall of critical theory and Edward Hoppers.

Upstairs, Ligon held court in a gallery hung with three more signs, each spelling out the word AMERICA, except that one of them was nearly dark, save for a few dim points of light. I wondered whether someone in the crowd (Jack Pierson, Isaac Julien, Mary Heilmann, Anne Bass, Julian Lethbridge, Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham) had broken it. No, Ligon said. “Those must be the little bits of light coming out of America. We could be in the light, or in the dark. It’s hard to know.”

Left: Artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Elizabeth Peyton. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Designer Cynthia Rowley and critic Jerry Saltz. (Photo: Bill Powers)

Perhaps Ligon is New York’s real artists’ artist, the genuine article, I thought, looking up to see Rirkrit Tiravanija, Elizabeth Peyton, Joel Meyerowitz, Douglas Crimp, James Casebere, and Lorna Simpson, while collectors Don and Mera Rubell, Michael and Susan Hort hung in the background. I found critic Jerry Saltz and designer Cynthia Rowley listening to the faint Billie Holiday music emanating from one of the plywood crates Ligon made to represent the one that a slave named Henry Brown used to mail himself to freedom before the Civil War. Bronx bomber John Ahearn was standing in a gallery where Ligon’s Malcolm X painting held the wall with other “coloring-book” canvases inspired by a project Ligon had done with schoolchildren, who drew such figures without regard to color.

At last, I came across the show’s fledgling curator, Scott Rothkopf, enjoying his first big triumph in a gallery where he had gathered Ligon’s signature early text paintings, the stenciled black-and-white ones with phrases by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, and Jesse Jackson. “Isn’t this room beautiful?” Rothkopf said. “It’s like the Rothko Chapel, or the stations of the cross, or something.” Frankly, it looked much cooler.

The evening heated up with a blowout at the nearby Mark Hotel hosted by Ligon’s three galleries, Luhring Augustine, Regen Projects, and Thomas Dane. It rapidly evolved from cocktails among friends (Lawrence Weiner, Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn, Julie Mehretu, Eungie Joo) to nonstop dancing. Cutting up the rug with Rothkopf and Linda Norden was Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s usually businesslike chief curator, who surprised everyone by revealing she was born to boogie. But the opening night’s brio really stemmed from the forceful way it demonstrated that the art world isn’t so all-white allover anymore. Nor should it be, least of all in America.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: The Whitney's front window. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Shaun Caley Regen and Glenn Ligon. (Photo: MatthewCarasella/