Glenn Ligon, Stranger Drawing #7, 2004. Photo Philips

coal dust, oil, pencil on paper mounted on aluminum 60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.) Signed, titled and dated Glenn Ligon 2004 Stranger Drawing #7 on the reverse. Estimate $300,000 - 500,000

PROVENANCE: Baldwin Gallery, Aspen

At some point I realized that the text was the painting and that everything else was extraneous. The painting became the act of writing a text on a canvas, but in all my work, text turns into abstraction.” GLENN LIGON, 2009

In 1985, Bronx-born Glenn Ligon attended the Whitney museum’s independent study program, focusing heavily on the use of text within art and setting in motion a career largely defined by this initial intrigue. In 2011, Ligon would return to the Whitney for his first comprehensive mid-career retrospective which was also shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

Though he has always worked across a vast range of media, Ligon is best known for his text-based paintings. The current lot epitomizes the artist’s ability to transform text into abstraction. The heavy black oilstick covers text from James Baldwin’s 1955 essay, Stranger in the Village, which describes the perspective of a man who moves to a small Swiss village where no one had ever seen a black man before. Though the viewer can make out the shapes of some letters and even a few words, it is nearly impossible to read the text in its entirety. The viewer’s inability to see beyond the muddled surface of the work prevents the viewer from processing the text. In this way Ligon has placed the viewer in the position of the Swiss villagers: trying to understand, but finding it impossible to look past the outermost appearance of the other. The ostracization of the viewer—enticing them to develop a deeper understanding of the work despite implementing obstacles that prevent that aim from being fully realized–anticipates the helplessness expressed by Bladwin’s essay, and contained within the painting: “[James] Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”