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Property from a Private Collection

Figure #28b

Figure #28b
signed twice, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon Glenn Ligon Figure #28 B 2009' (on the reverse)
acrylic, silkscreen and coal dust on canvas
60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 2009.
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014

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Julian Ehrlich
Julian Ehrlich Specialist, Head of Sale, Post-War to Present

Lot Essay

"I am drawn to [coal dust] because of all of the contradictory readings it engenders. Worthless. Waste. Black. Beautiful. Shiny. Reflective."
—Glenn Ligon

Rendered in coal dust and silkscreen across a painted canvas, Glenn Ligon’s Figure #28b (2009) blurs the line between his iconic text paintings and pure abstraction. As the stenciled letters slip and sway across the canvas, their collective meaning just barely eludes the viewer, prompting an ever-closer study of what censored message may lie within its contours. Beautifully haunting in its composition, the present work deftly explores the artist’s interest in found writing and the malleable nature of words as conveyors of meaning. Rather than strings of phonics with their associated connotations, Ligon presents merely symbols of communication liberated from their definitions in as much as they are their relation to one another. The forceful confinement of forms alludes to abstract expressionism, while simultaneously eschewing its raw gesture; Figure #28b bears intentionality in its carved, visceral passages.

A "There" in the upper left corner, and an "and" along the central horizontal axis do very little towards constructing an intelligible phrase, implying instead a sense of aphasia, or garbled, forgotten speech. Only a close reader of the artist’s wider oeuvre could infer the text sampling to be from James Baldwin’s 1953 Stranger in the Village, the very same essay Ligon employs in his earlier Stranger series. In this personal recounting of the author’s intense alienation as the only black person living in a remote Swiss community, Baldwin draws parallels between his abroad experience and the wider history of race relations in America. Describing the Swiss villagers raising funds to convert “African natives” to Christianity, Baldwin mentions “a small box with a slot for money, decorated with a black figurine”: just one of many possible “figures” suggested in the shadows of Ligon’s work. In a parallel reading, Ligon’s titular word may refer to a pictorial pattern, motif or diagram; it might equally designate a human form. Indeed, as is typical of Ligon’s work, the Figure series is directly concerned with the presentation of the self through text and image.

The striking materiality of the present painting furthers the entanglement of medium and message. Ligon was partly inspired to use coal dust by Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust silkscreens, which use diamond dust to convey glamor, luxury and even holiness, embellishing his pictures of high-heeled shoes or sanctifying his portraits of Joseph Beuys. Coal dust, however, implies its own associations of manual labor and inescapable toiling, the first step towards Warhol’s eventual diamond sparkles. Originating as a dense industrial waste product, the substance is transformed in Ligon’s work into a scintillating surface laden with complex meaning. When responding to Baldwin, Ligon explains the black dust’s physical weight had its own special importance: “I wanted the material that I was using for the paintings to have the same kind of gravitas as the text” (G. Ligon, quoted in S. Andrews, “Glenn Ligon: in Conversation,” in Glenn Ligon Some Changes, exh. cat., Toronto, Contemporary Art Gallery at Harborfront Center, 2005, p. 173). Combining his sharp semiotic intelligence with a profound, painterly beauty, Figure #28b witnesses Ligon using Baldwin’s text as a vehicle for the reading and rereading of his own selfhood. The present lot thus exemplifies Ligon’s navigation of reading, looking and living as a black man in contemporary America, finding glittering majesty in the dark and difficult.

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