Glenn Ligon - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Monday, February 8, 2016 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

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

  • Catalogue Essay

    In the present lot, the viewer is confronted with a fragment of almost unreadable text stencilled onto a canvas and covered in a shiny black dust. Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #45 is one from a series of paintings that the African American artist created during a span of thirteen years and that appropriates fragments of a fellow African American writer: James Baldwin. In 1953, Baldwin wrote an essay titled 'Stranger in the Village' where he reflected upon his time spent writing away from America in a little town in Switzerland. For many of the villagers, Baldwin was the first black person they encountered, and his presence generated in the Swiss a mix of curiosity and despise. Ligon takes Baldwin’s study about race, identity and otherness as the narrative content for his abstract paintings.

    For Ligon, certain parts of Baldwin’s text are clear and straightforward in their propositions, but other sections are much more obscure. In the same way, Ligon transfers the text to his canvas sometimes in a legible way, but other times in a blurry, crusty and diffuse typeface that provokes a struggle in the audience to understand.

    Appropriation is a common technique in Ligon’s oeuvre; for him, it is the way to add content to his otherwise apparently 'content-free' paintings. As the printing of text became more methodical, Ligon talks about text becoming intrinsic to the painting and that everything else becomes innecesary, and the appropriated text then turns into abstraction. Ligon explains: 'Sol LeWitt had a huge influence on my work because of his use of repetition and his clarity, setting up a system and letting that system go. That’s kind of where the text paintings come from.' (G. Ligon interviewed by J. Moran, Interview Magazine, 2009, accessed online).

    In the present lot, Ligon uses a stencil to press the coal dust covered letters on the canvas. Parts of the text appears almost effaced, making the reliance on the narrative of the text impossible. Interpreting the work becomes a joined effort between what the title suggests and the struggle of the audience to understand, the beauty of the material and its insignificance.

    For Ligon the use of coal in this works '… 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: Stranger, The Studio Museum of Harlem. New York, NY, 2001.)

  • Artist Biography

    Glenn Ligon

    American • 1960

    Glenn Ligon gained prominence in the early 1990s as a pioneering artist whose incisive work exploring of the contemporary American experience utilized the methods and legacies of modern painting and conceptual art. Embracing an intertextual approach, Ligon incorporates works from the arts, literature, history, and his own life to investigate American society and its inequities. Though he began his career as an abstract painter, he began incorporating text into his work in the mid-1980s to better articulate his political concerns and his ideas about racial identity and experience. He samples writing from famed Black writers including James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, among other authors. 

    Ligon’s body of work includes painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and neon art, but he is most widely associated with his text-based paintings. He is also notable for conceptualizing the term “Post-Blackness,” with Thelma Golden, describing it as “the liberating value in tossing off the immense burden of race-wide representation, the idea that everything they do must speak too for or about the entire race.” His work is held in notable museum collections around the world.

    View More Works

Property from an Important New York Collection


Stranger #45

oil stick, acrylic and coal dust on canvas
243.8 x 182.9 cm (96 x 72 in.)
Signed, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon "Stranger #45" 2011' on the reverse of the backing board. Further signed, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon "Stranger #45" 2011' on the overlap.

£1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for £1,426,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London

+44 207 318 4063

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 9 February 2016 7pm