Who he is: A painter and conceptual artist who uses text and video to explore American history and society. His pieces range from a 22-foot-long neon sign that spells out NEGRO SUNSHINE (a phrase appropriated from Gertrude Stein) to language-based paintings composed of jokes told by the comedian Richard Pryor to paintings based on black-history coloring books from the 1970s.
His background: When Ligon, who grew up in the Bronx, was in school, his mother enrolled him in drawing classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But when he expressed interest in pursuing art as a career, she balked. "My mother said the only artists she ever heard of were dead," he says.
His Aha! Moment: After college, to support his art, Ligon spent some seven years proofreading documents on the graveyard shift at a law firm. Then, in 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts gave Ligon a $5,000 grant. "That grant clicked on the lightbulb in my head," he says. "If the government thinks I'm an artist..."
His breakthrough: In 2009 the Obamas included Ligon's Black Like Me #2, a stenciled work about the segregated South, in the art they borrowed for the White House walls. Earlier this year, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented a retrospective of his work, securing his place in the art history books. —Jennifer Stahl