What Is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection

Glenn Ligon. White #19. 1994

Glenn Ligon. White #19. 1994

Oilstick, gesso, and acrylic on canvas mounted on wood, 7' x 60" (213.3 x 152.4 cm). Committee on Painting and Sculpture Funds. © 2018 Glenn Ligon

Artist, Glenn Ligon: The painting, White #19, is entirely made out of text. It's a painting made with oil stick and it was done by stenciling the text of a paragraph from an essay onto the canvas with oil paint, and the more you stencil, the darker and denser the painting becomes.

The text is from an essay by Richard Dyer entitled White, which is about the representation of whiteness. One of the claims that Dyer makes is that whiteness is very difficult to analyze because it operates as the norm, and so things that seem normal are very difficult to see, but that things that seem special or different seem glaringly visible. He says that blackness seems very visible and easy to analyze, whereas whiteness seems to disappear when you start to talk about it. And this sort of question of the visibility and invisibility of race in our culture was one of the things I was really interested in exploring in the work.

I use a plastic letter stencil that has every letter of the alphabet on it and the painting is made by doing each letter, one at a time, from the top of the painting to the bottom of the painting, and then when I reach the bottom, I start over again. The more I go over those letters with this oil stick, the blacker and denser the surface of the painting becomes, to the point where it is entirely blacked out. So the text is visible and not visible, legible and not legible in various degrees. The text still remains fragmentary. It's not even possible to read an entire paragraph in the text.

The struggle that you have to go through in reading the text in my painting adds something to the text.

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