‘It Has Different Levels of Legibility’: Watch Artist Glenn Ligon Translate Gertrude Stein’s Writings Into Works of Art

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21
Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Glenn Ligon: Layers of Meaning." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

American artist Glenn Ligon has a way with words. His text-laden paintings are based on seminal writings by authors such James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Gertrude Stein, and Jesse Jackson, and his work is often steeped in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and other cultural touchstones of the 20th century.

Beyond using text as a conceptual basis for his artwork, he physically manipulates strings of letters, which are often stenciled in layers that eventually build up in certain places, obscuring certain phrases or words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Glenn Ligon: Layers of Meaning." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Glenn Ligon: Layers of Meaning.” © Art21, Inc. 2014.

“If someone knows James Baldwin and realizes that the text in my painting is from an essay that he’s written, that opens up the painting,” Ligon explains in an exclusive interview as part of Art21’s “Extended Play” series. “It gives it a different layer of meaning.”

Right now, visitors to The Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles can see Ligon’s work in “Selections from the Marciano Collection,” including examples based on James Baldwin’s 1953 essay Stranger in the Village, which Ligon discusses during the Art21 interview.

Although he acknowledges that “like any artwork, things become richer if you know more about them,” Ligon does not believe it’s necessary to have encyclopedic knowledge of his source materials.

“One can approach it as simply an object that has a certain kind of beauty… it has different levels of legibility.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Glenn Ligon: Selections From The Marciano Collection” is on view through May 12 at the Marciano Art Foundation. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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