1
1

PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION

Glenn Ligon
UNTITLED (I WAS SOMEBODY)
Estimate
Irrevocable Bids
Lots with this symbol indicate that a party has provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures that the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder or may receive a fixed fee in the event he or she is the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, the fixed fee (if applicable) for providing the irrevocable bid may be netted against the irrevocable bidder’s obligation to pay the full purchase price for the lot and the purchase price reported for the lot shall be net of such fixed fee. If the irrevocable bid is not secured until after the printing of the auction catalogue, a pre-lot announcement will be made indicating that there is an irrevocable bid on the lot. If the irrevocable bidder is advising anyone with respect to the lot, Sotheby’s requires the irrevocable bidder to disclose his or her financial interest in the lot. If an agent is advising you or bidding on your behalf with respect to a lot identified as being subject to an irrevocable bid, you should request that the agent disclose whether or not he or she has a financial interest in the lot.
Guaranteed Property
Guaranteed Property. The seller of lots with this symbol has been guaranteed a minimum price from one auction or a series of auctions. If every lot in a catalogue is guaranteed, the Conditions of Sale will so state and this symbol will not be used for each lot.
1,000,0001,500,000
LOT SOLD. 3,973,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT
1

PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION

Glenn Ligon
UNTITLED (I WAS SOMEBODY)
Estimate
Irrevocable Bids
Lots with this symbol indicate that a party has provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures that the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder or may receive a fixed fee in the event he or she is the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, the fixed fee (if applicable) for providing the irrevocable bid may be netted against the irrevocable bidder’s obligation to pay the full purchase price for the lot and the purchase price reported for the lot shall be net of such fixed fee. If the irrevocable bid is not secured until after the printing of the auction catalogue, a pre-lot announcement will be made indicating that there is an irrevocable bid on the lot. If the irrevocable bidder is advising anyone with respect to the lot, Sotheby’s requires the irrevocable bidder to disclose his or her financial interest in the lot. If an agent is advising you or bidding on your behalf with respect to a lot identified as being subject to an irrevocable bid, you should request that the agent disclose whether or not he or she has a financial interest in the lot.
Guaranteed Property
Guaranteed Property. The seller of lots with this symbol has been guaranteed a minimum price from one auction or a series of auctions. If every lot in a catalogue is guaranteed, the Conditions of Sale will so state and this symbol will not be used for each lot.
1,000,0001,500,000
LOT SOLD. 3,973,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

|
New York

Glenn Ligon
B. 1960
UNTITLED (I WAS SOMEBODY)
signed, titled and dated 1990 on the reverse
oilstick, graphite and gesso on panel
80 x 30 in. 203.2 x 76.2 cm.
Executed in 1990/2003.
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report

Provenance

Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2004

Exhibited

Toronto, The Power Plant; Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum; Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts; Luxembourg, Mudam - Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Glenn Ligon: Some Changes, June 2005 - December 2007, p. 135, illustrated in color and pp. 41-42 (text)
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, March 2011 - May 2012, pl. 25, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

“Elegance steadies him. The artist’s superb command of painterly and presentational rhetoric impresses because it has crucial work to do: it gives public poise to private conflict.” Peter Schjeldahl, "Unhidden Identities: A Glenn Ligon Retrospective," The New Yorker, March 21, 2011

Illuminated by raking light, a complex and nuanced articulation of raised letters emerges from a ghostly surface. Starkly elegant, challenging, and rigorously personal, Ligon’s Untitled (I Was Somebody) from 1990 and 2003 is an extraordinary monument to the existential powers of looking—at art, at society, and at ourselves. Drawing on rhetorical passages from writers who negotiated the prospects of being black in an oppressively white America, such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, Ligon’s paintings bring to the fore through formal and chromatic complexities the realities of racial visibility. Of the just twenty-one door paintings ever produced by the artist, the present work is the only monochromatic example with white text on a white ground, making it a supremely rare paragon of Ligon’s most acclaimed body of work. Exhibited in both of Ligon’s major travelling retrospectives to date—including one originating at the Power Plant Gallery in Toronto in 2005 and the most recent at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2011—Untitled (I Was Somebody) is considered one of the most significant paintings by the artist, and represents the pinnacle of Ligon’s achievements.

The door paintings first brought Ligon wide critical praise when three from the series were exhibited in the 1991 Whitney Biennial in New York. The idea to use the readymade wooden panel as a painterly support came to Ligon one day in 1990 while moving a discarded door out of his way in his lower Manhattan studio—the painter became immediately aware of the surface’s ideal weight and resistance to the pressure of his stencil, and that its predetermined eighty inch tall by thirty inch wide format made it a perfectly scaled referent to the human body for texts that speak in the first person about the body and the self. Priming the surface of the door first with gesso mixed in with marble dust and raw umber Tints-All, Ligon then pressed his oil stick firmly through a stenciled template letter by letter, and line by line. The physically demanding labor involved in the painstaking application of each letter along the length of the door is palpable as the letters begin to lose regularity with exhausted efforts resulting in increased smears and imperfections. Especially against their white ground, the words emerge from and recede into another, teetering on the threshold of legibility. Just as James Baldwin reflected on how Americans have made “an abstraction of the Negro,” here the application of oilstick and gesso on panel combined with the dense overlaying of text create an overall abstraction in relief, its clarity strained in its riveting textural denseness. The anthropomorphic scale of the painting creates the conditions for a profoundly affecting viewing experience, while the dizzying efforts to read the vanishing white-on-white text—with some letters clearly delineated and some gone amok in a massed accumulation of oil-stick—becomes truly unsettling, harnessing the very disquieting racial undertones permeating Ligon’s work.

Defined by a seductive braille-like relief, Ligon’s painting registers a syncopated rhythm in the repeated phrase that marches across its every line, often stopping short at the right edge and starting anew on the next line. Appropriated from the poem “I Am Somebody,” written in the 1950s by the noted civil rights activist Reverend William Holmes Borders, and made known in its frequent recitations by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ligon inverted the temporality of the text by replacing ‘am’ with ‘was.’ Using a given text but shifting the linguistic pronoun of ‘I’ to reflect his performance of the quotation, Ligon’s painting introduces a compelling challenge to the nature of identity: “The work addresses us physically as a body while it forces us to question our sense of our own bodies and those of others. Taken together, his phrases constitute a densely layered, polyphonic response to what it means to be black or white, to be perceived as one or the other, to desire and to frighten, and to be the object of those verbs… Ligon’s Door paintings make us wonder afresh what it means to be somebody—to be anybody, really—in relation to somebody or anybody else.” (Scott Rothkopf in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, 2011, pp. 29-30)

Eminent scholar and curator Darby English described the resounding power of the present work in great detail: “Untitled (I Was Somebody) (1990/2003), a white-on-white-on-white text painting that Ligon repainted in 2003, repeats the subtitled phrase about 150 times. In vivid accord with minimalist thinking about the constant, known shape, the panel mimics the proportions of speaking and hearing, viewing and viewed bodies. But whereas the minimalist object forced the viewer’s consciousness of perception with a generalized object—the equivalent, in a way, of an abstracted common denominator of subjectivity—Ligon fills the space with discord. The text gradually thickens as it traverses the eighty inches, its texture giving spatial, even atmospheric dimensions to something that the mind knows to be flat (the printed page). But Ligon’s monochromatic rendering, which effectively empties the already non-contrasting letters of their volume, transforms the affective charge as well as the tense of Jesse Jackson’s famous pronouncement, usually inflected by the gravelly voiced stentorian as ‘I am—somebody!’ Were it not for the oil seeping from the original letter forms and forming halos round the newer ones, the dingy white letters would be virtually indistinct from their ground. The words appear to withdraw not only from perception but from the language-form itself, a process that engenders a sharp increase in affect inasmuch as Jackson’s famous affirmation diminishes into melancholic reverie, and very nearly becomes its own echo.” (Darby English, "Glenn Ligon: Committed to Difficulty" in Exh. Cat., Toronto, The Power Plant (and travelling), Glenn Ligon: Some Changes, 2005, pp. 41-42)

Glenn Ligon's artistic output is amongst the crowning achievements of a generation of conceptually motivated artists whose works canvassed social themes of race, sexuality and gender. Working across painting, printmaking, neon sculpture, video, and installation, Ligon explores a complex melding of the visual and textual to invite viewers to contemplate issues of race, sexuality, representation, and language. Harnessing the potent sensory dimension of words akin to Ed Ruscha and Christopher Wool, while exploring rich painterly rhythms of repetition like Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, Ligon’s painting draws on a variety of textual and pictorial sources. As content bewitchingly merges with form, the coincident process of reading and looking permeates Ligon’s painting, creating a surface rich with affective potential and stunning resonance.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

|
New York