Glenn Ligon - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, May 15, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Regen Projects, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I'm interested in when language fails, when it is opaque." - Glenn Ligon

    Belonging to Glenn Ligon’s acclaimed Figure series, Figure #42, 2010, luminously distills Ligon’s continual investigations into the erasure of black narratives and verbal representation. Exemplifying Ligon’s signature juxtaposition of pictures and captions, blocks of text superimposed on the composition flicker in the viewer’s eye, coalescing into a black mass of glittering dusk in the lower half of the enormous golden canvas. Ligon’s deeply personal amalgams of text and image have cemented his place in the annals of abstraction, and his works are currently held in the permanent collections of major institutions worldwide, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

    The Figure series developed out of Ligon’s Stranger in the Village paintings, in which the artist initially began to use coal dust to trace the shadows of black figures atop seemingly abstract paintings, and the present work is directly based on Ligon’s 2002 painting Masquerade of that series. In Masquerade, Ligon rendered a page from James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village”, a poignant recording of Baldwin’s experience as the only black man living in a Swiss village during a trip to Europe in 1951. Baldwin used this experience to reflect upon the racial history of the United States and the unresolved effects of systematic discrimination against black Americans. Ligon’s ironic self-appropriation of his own work can be construed as simultaneously a joke on postmodernist appropriation techniques and an artist gifted in literary deconstruction, working through classic textual sources to unravel the ambiguities in writing. As James Meyer wrote on Ligon’s practice: “Slowing down the processes of seeing and reading, he troubled the modernist distinction between these modes of cognition…He became a painter of signs, a sign painter” (James Meyer, “Glenn Ligon: Whitney Museum of American Art”, Artforum 49, no. 10, Summer 2011, p. 293).

    To create the richly worked surface and delicate spiking peaks in Figure #42, Ligon took inspiration from Andy Warhol’s incorporation of diamond dust in his Shadows series, 1975-1979. Yet Ligon’s decision to use coal dust is also a political one, complicating the image with its material symbolism even as it destabilizes the spectator’s reading of the text by rendering it illegible. Ligon reflected that coal dust “was very visceral and bumped up the physicality of the text, but at the same time obscured the text…Coal dust is an interesting material for me because it’s beautiful; it’s a black, shiny material, but it’s also a waste product leftover from coal processing…I am drawn to it because of all of the contradictory readings it engenders. Worthless. Waste. Black. Beautiful. Shiny. Reflective. I think it’s interesting also because Baldwin takes this sense of perceived negatives being black, being gay, and being poor and sees them as ‘hitting the jackpot.’ It is from that position, that of the outsider, from which you can actually say the most” (Glenn Ligon, quoted in Glenn Ligon: Stranger, exh. cat., The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2001, n.p.).


Figure #42

signed, titled and dated "Glenn Ligon Figure #42 2010 2010" on the overlap; further signed, titled and dated "Glenn Ligon Glenn Ligon Figure #42 2010" on the reverse
acrylic, silkscreen and coal dust on canvas
60 1/4 x 48 in. (153 x 122 cm.)
Executed in 2010.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Contact Specialist
Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York
+ 1 212 940 1250

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 May | On View at 450 Park Avenue