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Details
Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
Stranger Drawing #1
signed, titled and dated ‘Stranger Drawing #1 Glenn Ligon 2004’ (on the reverse)
oilstick on paper mounted on aluminum
60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
Executed in 2004.
Provenance
Baldwin Gallery, Aspen
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Alexander Berggruen
Alexander Berggruen

Lot Essay

“In writing something is always left out, it can't be articulated in the space of an essay. Using letters that bleed and disappear is about getting to that difficulty.” -Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon’s Stranger Drawing #1 presents a white-on-white selection of text from the novelist, poet and playwright James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village.” More specifically, Ligon reproduced the first paragraph and the first few lines of the second, which set the scene for the essay. The essay and the painting read, “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came. I was told before arriving that I would probably be a ‘sight’ for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are always something of a ‘sight’ outside of the city. It did not occur to me—possibly because I am an American—that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro. It is a fact that cannot be explained on the basis of the inaccessibility of the village. The village is very high, but it is only four hours from Milan and three hours from Lausanne. It is true that it is virtually unknown. Few people making plans for a holiday would elect to come here. On the other hand…”
The white oil stick on white paper evokes the whiteness of snow-covered Leukerbad, the remote village in Switzerland where Baldwin stayed in the winter, and the people there who had never seen, let alone conversed with an African American person before. Baldwin took the uncomfortable, if not overtly racist, interactions with the villagers as an opportunity to compare the experience of being an outsider in Europe, where he was approached as an oddity, to his life in America, where the oppression of Black people has been a defining feature of the culture and economy of the country since its inception. When Ligon wrote the text down the length of the paper, the text blurred because of the nature of the materials used. Written in white oil stick atop a white background, legibility is beside the point. Meaning disintegrates as the material accumulates. 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 in H. Sheets, “The Writing on the Wall,” ARTnews, April 2011, p. 89).
Ligon has worked with Baldwin’s essay since 1996 when he first began using this text as a source material. He summarizes the text in his own words, “The essay is about the fascination and fear that the villagers approach him with... 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, 8 June 2009, n.p.).
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 in 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 overdetermined, ambivalent spaces” (G. Ligon quote in 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 sources in order to contextualize 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 lettering, he revised the look and meaning of Johns’ 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’” (J. Meyers, “Glenn Ligon: Whitney Museum of Art, New York” Artforum, summer 2011, p. 392).
In addition to Johns, Ligon’s Stranger Drawing #1 also conjures the white-on-white monochromes of Robert Ryman. As curator and critic Lauri Firstenberg notes in her interview with the artist, “The masking or camouflaging of language in the [Strangers in the Village] paintings operate in such a way as to activate and to put great pressure on the part of the viewer, bringing the spectator back into his or her own body, as if inspired by the lexicon of Minimalism” (L. Firstenberg, Op. cit., p. 42). Choosing a text about what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, Ligon aims to conjures 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.

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