Painting That Looks Like Blank Canvas Eyes Up £2.6 Million Price Tag

by : Cameron Frew on : 04 Dec 2020 10:13
Painting That Looks Like Blank Canvas Eyes Up £2.6 Million Price TagSotheby's

A New York artist is expected to snag £2.6 million for his ‘profoundly poetic and compelling’ painting. From a brief glance, it looks like a blank canvas. 

However, Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #37 is far more than that. Painted in 2008 using layers of coal dust and white oil, the handiwork behind the art is intended to illustrate ‘the fragmented experience and representation of both the Black individual and artist in America’.


Look closely and you’ll see faded text from James Baldwin, the famed civil rights activist and writer. More specifically, it features his 1953 essay Stranger in the Village, based on the author’s time as a Black man visiting a Swiss hamlet in the Alps.

Sotheby's Glenn LigonSotheby's

The painting is due to go on sale at Sotheby’s in London next Tuesday, December 8. Its website reads: ‘Interminably exoticised and presented as foreign within their home territories, is a physical manifestation of Baldwin’s essay on colonialism, national identity and the Black experience, depicted through a medium that expresses the inability to articulate the experience fully.’

It adds, clarifying the process further: ‘In a labour-intensive process of continued overwriting, the malleable oil stick collapses to lose its delineating clarity, which is further compromised by the comprehensive application of coal dust that pushes the words just beyond the boundaries of comprehension.’


Ligon, a Wesleyan University arts graduate who also attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, is well-known for his textual paintings, commonly exploring social issues such as racism and homophobia.

In an earlier interview, the artist said: 

[Baldwin] even says: ‘They don’t believe I’m American – black people come from Africa.’ The essay is not only about race relations but about what it means to be a stranger anywhere. How does one break down the barrier between people? It’s a global question, and it probably reflects what I’ve been trying to do – reach out more.


He also said, ‘I’m making the reading of Baldwin’s words difficult because it’s a parallel to the difficulty of the subject matter that Baldwin is trying to address,’ MailOnline reports.

File: James BaldwinPA/Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

Ligon added: ‘That struggle the viewer has with this dense materialised text that I am using is about the struggle of trying to understand what it means for Baldwin to be a black man in America and in society or his relationship to European culture or his relationship to the civil rights movement as an exile in France.’

You can read Stranger in the Village here.


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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Life, Art, New York, Racism


Sotheby's and 1 other
  1. Sotheby's

    Glenn Ligon Stranger #37

  2. MailOnline

    Writing's on the wall! The eye-watering £2.6MILLION price tag for a painting that looks like a BLANK canvass from a distance (but actually includes faded text from a civil rights essay)