Untitled (I'm Turning Into a Specter before Your Very Eyes and I'm Going to Haunt You)

Glenn Ligon, American, born 1960

Geography:
Made in United States, North and Central America

Date:
1992

Medium:
Oil and gesso on canvas

Dimensions:
80 1/8 × 32 1/8 × 2 inches (203.5 × 81.6 × 5.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Contemporary Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
1992-101-1

Credit Line:
Purchased with the Adele Haas Turner and Beatrice Pastorius Turner Memorial Fund, 1992

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Label:
A painting of stenciled letters, this work reflects Glenn Ligon's interest in the way culture and language shape personal identity. It is part of a series of paintings in which the artist uses excerpts from literature; this piece quotes the 1959 play The Blacks (Les Nègres) by French writer Jean Genêt. Other works by Ligon are based on texts by African American writers such as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison. The text moves down the canvas in obsessive repetition, its legibility diminishing with the buildup of paint. The blurring of the words emphasizes their physical presence while at the same time performing the very meaning of the text.

Additional information:
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    A painting fashioned from stenciled letters made in oil stick on canvas, Ligon's Untitled (I'm Turning Into a Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I'm Going to Haunt You) takes its place within the tradition of using language to make art and to question the meaning of representation. Like many painters and photographers of the 1980s and 1990s, Ligon became intrigued by research into the way culture and language shape identity. This painting belongs to a group of works he made in the early 1990s using words in black on white canvases and usually excerpting texts from literature by African American writers such as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison. The source for Untitled (I'm Turning Into a Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I'm Going to Haunt You) is a 1959 play, The Blacks (Les Nègres), by the French writer Jean Genêt.

    The artist made a slight but crucial alteration to Genêt's original text, transforming the original third-person voice into the first person. In Genêt's play, actors hide their identities by wearing black or white masks, an effect similar to Ligon's use of a borrowed quotation to distance the words from his own voice. His use of a stencil plate to form the letters suppresses the personality of his handwriting. Inspiring in the viewer a sense of curiosity about the identity of the speaker, Ligon's method also subtly suggests the complexities involved in representing racial identity in either paint or words. As the transcribed text moves down the canvas with relentless, obsessive repetition, its legibility diminishes with the build-up of paint. As the lines of clearly visible words become more blurred and spectral, the marks emphasize the physical presence of the work as a painting while substantiating the content of the text itself. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 147.