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Stranger #57

Stranger #57
signed, titled and dated 'Stranger #57 2012 Glenn Ligon' (on the reverse)
oilstick, acrylic, and coal dust on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 2012.
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Private collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Glenn Ligon is both a conceptual artist and an art historian, telling and retelling narratives of race, gender, literature, and paint itself within the space of the canvas. Stranger #57, executed in 2012, is a poignant example of Ligon’s rigorous combination of art and text, as well as his use of unique materials in order to heighten the materiality of the image. This monumental canvas belongs to Ligon’s seminal Stranger series, which he began in 1996. The text is taken from James Baldwin’s influential 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” recalling his visit as a Black man to the predominantly white Switzerland in the 1950s. A large work—measuring six square feet—Stranger #57 is a rare example of a square canvas from the series, another being in the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Other, non-square, monumentally-scaled paintings from the series are held by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. As is always the case with Ligon, in Stranger #57 we find clarity in obscurity, the past in the contemporary, and connectivity within difference.

Perhaps appearing from far away to be a monochrome, Stranger #57 is in fact textured with words, undulating like the body does. The pulsating text, almost Abstract Expressionist in its gestural quality, is an excerpt of Baldwin’s essay, which was written while on a sojourn in Switzerland for his mental health. He found, however, less peace than estrangement. People in the resort town had never seen a Black person before, and therefore treated him with suspicion or as a token. In unpacking his surprise and bewilderment at the racism he faced abroad, Baldwin writes, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them…” (J. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” Notes of a Native Son, Boston, 1984, p. 163). Ligon has always sought to likewise prove the undeniable presence of the past with us here and now. He has shown us throughout his career, and especially with multivalent works like Stranger #57, that history, and the bodies that populate it, are as dense as layers of media upon a canvas.

However, there is also freedom in Stranger #57, a desire to make history not only a trap, but a source of outreach, energy, and community. Ligon’s cropping and excerpting are themselves radical moments of choice, in which he selects parts of Baldwin’s source material to amplify and repurpose in paint. Moreover, the block of text in Stranger #57 does not seem bounded within the canvas, but rather as if it could go on forever, onward to some new future. It almost engulfs the viewer, asking of everyone who sees it to not remain neutral. Filled to the edge with words, and with history itself, Stranger #57 is indicative of the vastness of the Black experience, as epitomized by Ligon’s coextensive exploration of Black history, identity, and aesthetics alike.

That exploration has always employed innovative media that have multiple meanings. Of his use of coal dust, Ligon elaborates, “I am drawn to it because of all of the contradictory readings it engenders. Worthless. Waste. Black. Beautiful. Shiny. Reflective” (G. Ligon, quoted in T. Golden, Stranger, exh. cat., The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2001, n. p.). It is no mistake that Baldwin recalls of the Swiss townsfolk, “Some of them thought my hair was the color of tar… or put [their] hand on my hand, astonished that the color did not rub off” (J. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” Notes of a Native Son, Boston, 1984, p. 166). Ligon therefore elevates a neglected byproduct, even a racist allegory of pigment and color, and makes it into something of untold beauty and, in equal measure, pressing activist aims.

Like coal dust, Baldwin’s words are, for Ligon, a source of endless inspiration. He says of “Stranger in the Village,” “The gravity and weight and panoramic nature of that work inspired me … and the addition of the coal dust seemed to me to do that because it literally bulked up the text” (G. Ligon, quoted in H. Als, “Strangers in the Village,” Glenn Ligon: America, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2011, p. 211). History builds upon itself in Ligon’s world, growing and expanding as it lives on in different media and forms of presentation. Stranger #57 is paradigmatic of Ligon’s conceptual and political practice, whose medium is history itself. It reaches outward, bulked up, to use Ligon’s words, with time, paint, coal, text, Baldwin’s life story, and the experiences of the artist himself. Stranger #57 makes clear that amplifying the stories of others is the core of art and social progress.

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