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At the center of To be a Negro in this country is really never to be looked at, a show of prints by Glenn Ligon, is a collaboration between the artist and Andy Warhol. The project marries five never-before-seen paintings by Ligon with a wallpaper refabricated by Warhol’s estate. Ligon’s “Grey Hands” screen prints are grainy reproductions of a media handout photo of raised hands from the Million Man March in 1995; Warhol’s rarely seen “Washington Monument” wallpaper features a sunny scribble of the obelisk and reflecting pool.
The pairing is practically an essay about the National Mall, about how it is pictured and who it is for, perfectly suited to a moment when those questions are being relitigated in the news. Ligon’s prints look like dark windows set in Warhol’s dashed-off landscape sketches. The project could be a show all its own, and it’s a signal that Georgetown University’s new Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery, which only opened last fall, is already punching above its weight.
Instead, the Ligon and Warhol exclusive serves as the backbone of a mini-survey of Ligon’s work. The show draws its title from a 1953 essay by James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” which recounts the author’s experience as an African-American living in a hamlet in Switzerland. Two works from a suite of untitled prints (2016) recreate the paint-splattered pages of Baldwin’s text (as the well worn copy from Ligon’s studio appears). The artist has long used Warhol’s techniques to explore Baldwin’s texts as a way to frame the centuries-long struggle of asserting black visibility.
Elsewhere, the show also includes six drawings in oil stick and coal dust from the series, “Study for Negro Sunshine” (2008–2009), the work most typical of Ligon’s style on view here. In a thick, smudgy typewriter typeface, which appears to break down with repetition, Ligon draws over and over the phrase “Negro Sunshine.” It’s a snippet of a passage from Gertrude Stein’s novella Three Lives that employs a crude racial stereotype. A signal that degrades as it echoes, Ligon’s repetitive gestures represent the “lower frequencies” that Ralph Ellison describes in his novel, Invisible Man (another touchstone for Ligon): “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
In just a single gallery, the de la Cruz presentation threads a number of needles in Ligon’s work. For that, viewers have the gallery’s director to thank: Al Miner, a former hand at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, who most recently worked as the curator for contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There’s even a piece here that breaks new ground, “Study for Negro Sunshine (Red) #2” (2018), a departure from Ligon’s monochromes. A promising start and a welcome addition for the District.
As a standalone show, To be a Negro in this country is really never to be looked at arguably works best as a second stop after seeing “Untitled (I Am a Man)” (1988), a painting on view at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building and possibly Ligon’s finest artwork. The painting reproduces the protest sign born by some 1,300 striking African-American sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, recreating the distinctive narrow hand-lettered font and underline-for-emphasis that turned the “I Am a Man” posters into a civil rights image. The painting underscores how Ligon balances activism, repetition, textuality, and (in)visibility in his work—ideas at the forefront of this Georgetown show.
But Georgetown’s slender mini-survey, an exploration of signing and signification on the National Mall, has a timely function following the recent confrontation between a MAGA hat–wearing teen and a Native American veteran on the National Mall: It’s required reading.
At the Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery at Georgetown University to April 7. 3535 Prospect St. NW. Free. (202) 687-8039. delacruzgallery.georgetown.domains