Glenn Ligon - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Oscillating between clarity and obscurity, belonging and displacement, Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #67 is emblematic of the artist’s career-long visual investigation of colonialism, identity, and racial politics in America. Taking James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” as inspiration and source material, the present work is a superb example from one of Ligon’s most acclaimed bodies of work, the Stranger series, which the artist began in 1996 and comprises almost 200 paintings, drawings, and prints.

    "I was told before arriving that I would probably be a "sight" for the village…It did not occur to me—possibly because I am an American—that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro."
    — James Baldwin 


    The expansive canvas of Stranger #67 is filled edge-to-edge with the beginning of Baldwin’s essay—“From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came”—in a manner reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s or Cy Twombly’s uses of text. However, many of the words in the present work are left illegible and are rendered in oil stick and coal dust—one of Ligon’s favorite media. “Coal dust is an interesting material for me,” the artist said of this idiosyncratic choice, “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

    Stranger in the Village


    Written after nearly suffering from a mental breakdown, “Stranger in the Village” recounts Baldwin’s time spent in a Swiss health-resort in Leukerbad, Switzerland during the early 1950s. According to the writer, residents of the alpine town had never encounted a Black man before and were engrossed by his Blackness—thus making him a stranger to the village in more than one sense.

    "He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him."
    — James Baldwin


    The locals of Leukerbad responded to Baldwin in covertly as well as overtly racist ways, with reactions that ranged from the shouting of racial slurs to “well-meaning” comments that betray a deeper internalized prejudice. Upon reflection on these interactions, Baldwin began to compare his experiences as a Black man in America, where slavery played a prominent role in the development of the country’s industry and economy, and abroad, were Africans were not imported on such a scale.

    "These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it."
    — James Baldwin


    Baldwin concludes in “Stranger in the Village” that Black Americans are far from strangers back home; in the United States, Black and white people do not have distinct histories but instead disturbing ones that are inextricably tied. It is possible to read these intertwined pasts as manifested in the gradually progressing indistinguishability of the coal black text against the white canvas in Stranger #67—evoking and intensifying the power of the original text.ii


    Published just when the civil rights movement began gaining traction, this seminal essay blurred boundaries between the personal and the political and raised questions about identity and race relations that are still relevant today. “The gravity and weight and panoramic nature of that work inspired me,” Ligon expressed. “The addition of the coal dust seemed to me to do that because it literally bulked up the text.”

    "The interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new Black man, it has created a new white man, too."
    — James Baldwin

  • Hilton Als on the Stranger Series


    In his 2011 essay “Strangers in the Village,” cultural critic and curator Hilton Als provided one of the most rigorous readings of this evocative body of work. According to Als, “To make a painting is to create a visual flourish in the world—to wave a flag of difference. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Like [James] Baldwin's essay, Ligon's work—certainly in this series—is about being seen and not seen at the same time. The surfaces of the paintings, their layers upon layers of coal dust and handiwork, both draw you close and push you away (but where to?).” To this, Als answered: “The best clue is in the phrases Ligon has elected to borrow from Baldwin—maybe he chose the ones that resonate most with his own ‘I,’ with his sense of being a stranger in the village known as the art world, the queer aesthetic world dominated by men who do not look like Ligon or make art like him, let alone know anything about the source of his Stranger paintings.”iii


    In this sense, Als implies the “tiny Swiss village” that “no Black man had ever set foot in” is a metaphor in Stranger #67  for the cultural sector, alluding to Ligon’s own stuggles as a Black queer artist navigating the often white-dominated discipline of art history.


    “To be a stranger,” Als elucidated, “is to be excluded from the quotidian, to be ‘unreadable.’ The surface of Ligon's Stranger paintings are “strange” because of their texture—at first readable but, upon closer inspection, collapsing into a mass of words that can look like a mass of blackness, either hard or soft depending on the angle of view. Ligon remakes Baldwin’s language without changing the content. So, what is the relationship between the paintings and the essay? To understand Ligon, must one have read Baldwin? Or is it enough to read Ligon? Is each artist tapping into the same source—namely, how they’re haunted by the house they both inhabit: their Black maleness?”iv


    i Glenn Ligon, quoted in Glenn Ligon: Stranger, exh. cat., The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2001, n. p.
    ii Glenn Ligon, quoted in Patricia Bickers, “I Am a Man: A Body of Work,” Art Monthly, June 2008, no. 317, online.
    iii, iv Glenn Ligon, quoted in Hilton Als, “Strangers in the Village,” Glenn Ligon: America, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2011, p. 211.

    • Provenance

      Rat Hole Gallery, Tokyo
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Tokyo, Rat Hole Gallery, Glenn Ligon, March 29 – June 30, 2013

Property of an Important Asian Collector

Ο ◆15

Stranger #67

signed, titled and dated "Stranger #67 2012 Glenn Ligon LIGON" on the backing board
oilstick, acrylic and coal dust on canvas
84 x 60 in. (213.4 x 152.4 cm)
Executed in 2012.

Full Cataloguing

$1,400,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $1,784,500

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020