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.
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