Upcoming Auctions and Events

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Glenn Ligon (B. 1960)
Disruption: A Generation of Pictures
Glenn Ligon (B. 1960)

Stranger #36

Details
Glenn Ligon (B. 1960)
Stranger #36
signed, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon 2008 Stranger #36' (on the reverse); signed again, titled again and dated again 'Stranger # Glenn Ligon 2008' (on the overlap)
oil stick, coal dust and gesso on canvas laid down on panel
96 x 72 in. (243.8 x 182.8 cm.)
Executed in 2008.
Provenance
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

A monumentally-sized work from Glenn Ligon’s Strangers series, Stranger No. 36 presents a section of text from James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” in a manner that makes the passage paradoxically illegible. Writing the text over and over down the length of the canvas, the letters blur together because of the nature of the materials used. Written in black oil stick atop a black background and dusted with black coal powder, legibility seems to be beside the point. Meaning disintegrates as the material accumulates in a rich and dense patina that glistens and reflects the light. Ligon has stated, “The movement of language toward abstraction is a consistent theme in my work. ...I’m interested in what happens when a text is difficult to read or frustrates legibility—what that says about our ability to think about each other, know each other, process each other” (G. Ligon quoted by H. Sheets in “The Writing on the Wall,” ARTnews, April 2011, p. 89). Choosing a text about what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, Ligon aims to conjure the sense of estrangement and the collapse of visibility and legibility at the core of the Black experience in America in a form that innovates upon painting’s modernist masters.

James Baldwin wrote “Stranger in the Village” in response to the reception he received from the people of a remote Swiss village who had never seen, let alone conversed with a Black person before. This encounter with difference prompted the villagers to respond in a number of uncomfortable, if not overtly racist, ways. Baldwin took these interactions as an opportunity to compare the experience of being Black in Europe, where Black people were generally absent from the demographic, never having been imported en masse to the continent, and America, where slavery and the oppression of Black people has been a defining feature of the culture and economy of the country since its inception.

Ligon has worked with Baldwin’s essay since 1996 when he first began using this text as a source material. The repetition of a single sentence or passage from the text in the painting, as well as returning to the same book again and again for twenty years, are strategies the artist employs to keep the essay recirculating his and his viewer’s consciousness. Ligon summarizes the text in his own words, “The essay is about the fascination and fear that the villagers approach him with. He even says, “They don’t believe I’m American—black people come from Africa.” The essay is not only about race relations, but about what it means to be a stranger anywhere. How does one break down the barrier between people? It’s a global question and it probably reflects what I’ve been trying to do—reach out more” (G. Ligon quote by J. Moran “Glenn Ligon,” Interview Magazine, June 8, 2009, n.p.).

But beyond the framework of the text and the context in which Ligon represents it, there is the form in which he has chosen to do so. Writing the text in a manner that has pushed it to the level of abstraction, Ligon collapses the act of seeing and the act of reading, actions that require the eyes to do two different kinds of looking. Ligon intends to “slow down reading, to present a difficulty, to present something that is not so easily consumed and clear” (G. Ligon quoted by C. Berwick, “Stranger in America: Glenn Ligon,” Art in America, May 2011, n.p.). Selecting texts that speak to issues of race, Ligon also chooses a form that makes those texts difficult to access. Speaking to this aspect of his practice, he says, “Text demands to be read, and perhaps the withdrawal of the text, the frustration of the ability to decipher it, reflects a certain pessimism on my part about the ability and desire to communicate. Also, literature has been a treacherous site for Black Americans because literary production has been so tied with the project of proving our humanity through the act of writing. Ralph Ellison says that Louis Armstrong made poetry out of being invisible, and I am always interested in the ways black people have inhabited these over determined, ambivalent spaces” (Glenn Ligon quote by L. Firstenberg, “Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon,” Art Journal, Spring 2001, pp. 43).

Ligon reaches back in history to touch upon important innovations in painting. Coming of age in the era of appropriation, in the lineage of Duchamp, Ligon’s method derives from the postmodern strategy of sampling and excerpting images and texts from other works and contextualizing the material in a new way. Art historian and critic James Meyers expands upon this strategy when he writes that Ligon “did not so much ‘appropriate’ his textual or formal sources as work through them in his own hand. (Even Ligon’s encounter with Jasper Johns isn’t appropriation: Substituting oil stick and coal dust for encaustic, and literary texts for John’s serial letting, he revised the look and meaning of Johns’s technique). In other words, painting became a strategy for teasing out the ambiguities of writing and remarks touching on race and same-sex desire, however ‘well meaning.’ Even the most iconic and respected black literary voices would be subjected to the artist’s cool scrutiny (J. Meyers, “Glenn Ligon: Whitney Museum of Art, New York”” Artforum, Summer 2011, p. 392). In addition to Johns, Ligon’s Stranger #36 also conjures the monochrome. And as curator and critic Lauri Firstenberg notes in her interview with the artist, “the masking or camouflaging of language in the [Strangers] paintings operate in such a way as to activate and to put great pressure on the part of the viewer, bringing the spectator back onto his or her own body, as if inspired by the lexicon of Minimalism” (L. Firstenberg, Art Journal, pp. 42).

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

View All
View All