Lot 1
  • 1

Glenn Ligon

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Glenn Ligon
  • Untitled (negro sunshine)
  • neon
  • 15.2 by 109.2 by 5.7cm.
  • 6 by 43 by 2 1/4 in.
  • Executed in 2005, this work is number 2 from an edition of 7, plus 2 artist's proofs.


Yvon Lambert Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2006


Colour: The neon tends more towards brilliant white in the original. Condition: This work is in very good condition and working order.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Powerfully rendered in neon, Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (negro sunshine) from 2005 is part of the artist’s first series in this medium, a turning point in his career that led him to favour this type of installation thereafter. In line with his use of borrowed text from sources as diverse as gay porn magazines, political statements, African American literature and classic publications, Untitled presents a fragment from Gertrude Stein’s first published work of fiction: Three Lives from 1909. Utterly simple yet poignantly piercing, the present work falls within Ligon’s interrogation of ‘black identity’, a subject that has occupied him since the mid 1980s, when he was a painter participating in the Whitney Independent Study Program. A larger version of this work entitled Warm Broad Glow was prestigiously exhibited in the atrium of the Whitney Museum of American Art during his seminal retrospective there in 2011. Politically loaded yet oddly poetic, both Untitled (negro sunshine) and its larger sister Warm Broad Glow evince Ligon’s shrewd choice of words in his work.

“Rose Johnson was a real black negress… Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine” (Gertrude Stein, Three Lives, New York 2005, pp. 65-6). This fragment belongs to Melanctha, the second of the three parts in which Three Lives is divided. Favouring the description of emotions over action and narrating the life of a young mulatto woman, the novella was a radical literary break with the writing style at the time of its publication. Stein’s choice of coloured characters and her depiction of Melanctha as a sexually liberated woman when Victorian values marked the rule in women’s lives was considered somewhat revolutionary. Nowadays, her allusion to the idea of the “happy darkie” is still shocking and when decontextualized and hung in a gallery has an even more powerful meaning (Scott Rothkopf, ‘Glenn Ligon: AMERICA’ in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Glenn Ligon AMERICA, 2011, p. 44). Ligon’s interests, however, lay far beyond the simple purpose to shock. Indeed, referring to this text he has said: “Shock… It’s not provocative, it’s Gertrude Stein… I find her language fascinating. It’s a phrase that stuck in my head” (the artist cited in: Carol Vogel, ‘The Inside Story on Outsiderness’, The New York Times, 24 February 2011). Glowing against the white walls, Ligon’s neon cleverly combines the vernacular aspect of neon signage with high culture - Stein’s novel being considered one of the modern classics of American literature. The artist brilliantly fuses high and low to address issues such as his own ethnicity and sexuality and raises questions around the idea of racial tension, which continues to exist almost half a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Glenn Ligon’s choice of neon happened as a combination of chance and logical development of his artistic practice. Having started as an abstract painter, Ligon gradually introduced text into his paintings, which ended up being the hallmark of his works. A painter until 1992, the artist felt compelled to expand his choice of media when he began being included in group exhibitions with other artists that made installation, video or three dimensional works. The works included in the career defining 1993 retrospective of his oeuvre at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, for example, included an impressive installation featuring wooden crates with speakers that played Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, old African American work chants or Ligon’s own voice reading fragments of Henry Box Brown’s - an African American slave - account of his journey to freedom in 1849. However, it was David Hammons’ work of 2002 Concerto in Black and Blue, which finally triggered the use of neon in the artist’s work. For Ligon, Hammons successfully addressed black identity avoiding representation and the use of symbols, with Concerto simply featuring an empty gallery with no lights and small flashlights that emitted a soft blue glow. The artist felt immensely attracted to the idea of ‘black light’ and his studio being located above a neon shop enabled him to explore this medium. Since his first neon creation in 2005, Ligon has conceived striking, wonderfully effective idioms that gleam, incandescent bearers of uncomfortable truths. Indeed, Untitled (negro sunshine) is a vivid example of the artist’s intelligent play with words and neon as an advertisement material; a meaningful exploration of current social issues that are part of American history executed in a material that is part of our daily routine.