Lot 485
  • 485

Glenn Ligon

500,000 - 700,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Glenn Ligon
  • Figure #39
  • signed twice, titled and dated 2010 on the reverse
  • acrylic, silkscreen and coal dust on canvas
  • 60 by 48 in. 152.4 by 121.9 cm.


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

Catalogue Note

As a preeminent realization of his captivating coal dust paintings, Glenn Ligon’s Figure #39 encapsulates the artist’s perpetual engagement with the precarious construction of cultural identity. Rooted in his composition, yet barely decipherable within its complex painterly structure, the iconic stenciled text forms have become synonymous with Ligon's extended re-appropriation of the literary canon. Rendering his chosen text in uneven swathes of glistening black coal dust that appear either too saturated or too evasive to claim definitive legibility, the artist embarks upon his most radical interrogation of the semantic possibilities of the written word within the painted medium. Irreverently obfuscating the line between abstraction and typography, Ligon revels in the aesthetic ecstasy of his own profoundly rich intertextuality — a conceptual approach through which his practice reveals truths about being Black in America.

Amassing words from varied linguistic sources that span novels, non-fiction and poetry, to civil rights slogans and stand-up comedy, found texts have long grounded Ligon’s practice.  Foreshadowed by the iconic work Untitled (I Am a Man) in 1988, which used texts from protest signs carried during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, Ligon’s first solo show —  How It Feels to Be Colored Me -  established a recurring form for the artist. Held in Brooklyn in 1989, this exhibition witnessed the premier of large-format paintings that consisted of insistently repeated texts, through which Ligon invoked a deliberate destabilization of meaning. Offering an acute lens on the literary products of African American individuals, Ligon created an intense melding of the personal and political which posited him as one of the pioneering voices of the ‘post-blackness’ conceptual turn in the early 1990s. Epitomized in the work of Ligon, this movement sought to dispel the reductive stereotypes and racial prejudice that has plagued black representation through exploring the variegated achievements and rich cultural products that have stemmed from a diverse sense of black experience. Utilizing the muddied clarity of charcoal as a medium, Ligon’s extended series of text works ask what can come about through the remixing of historic literature in a contemporary context, insinuating that identity is never set, but an endless process of construction and deconstruction.

Created in 2010, the present work represents Ligon’s most radical exploration of the duplicitous role of letters as formal signs and as abstract forms in painting.  Like the abrasive ruptures to a torn page or the feedback interruption of a degraded digital transmission, the text in Figure #39 has been pushed beyond comprehension through a peculiar mixture of over saturation and negative space. Crucially, Ligon employs the potential for political neutrality that is offered by abstraction as “a reaction to the artistic climate” that he began creating work in. As he has extrapolated, it formed “a reaction to the mandates around the work of artists-of-color for a certain kind of legibility. Critics would say, ‘your work is about identity,’ and that would seemingly be enough to say. I was always uncomfortable with that kind of easy digesting of the work, as if artists-of-color are simply expressing who they are, as if one had unfettered access to who one is.” As such, Ligon continues to offer “resistance to that easy narrative of identity” (the artist cited in “Glenn Ligon: Interview by David Drogin," Museo, 2010).

Ligon embraces abstraction as a way of challenging preconceptions of his own legibility. By making the texts that he had become associated with now unreadable, Ligon embraces an ecstatic painterly abandon that recalls the aesthetic freedom of Abstract Expressionist forefathers such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Concealing words within abstraction, the artist cements his place within the canon of innovative painters through further subtle references locked in his idiosyncratic technique. The use of silkscreen ink looks back to Andy Warhol, most notably his diamond dust paintings which are recalled in Ligon’s delicate use of charcoal dust, whilst the variegated striations of texture drawn in horizontal bands forge aesthetic allegiance with the Abstrakte Bilder of Gerhard Richter. In the delicate interactions between the minute flecks of dark yet glistening charcoal and a pure white ground, Ligon shows his masterful amalgamation of an elaborate sense of abstraction, with a conceptual strain which fully realizes the profound nuances of cultural identity.