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Glenn Ligon

Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored)

1990

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored), 1990  2001.275
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored), 1990. Oil stick and gesso on panel, 80 × 30 1/16 × 1 1/2 in. (203.2 × 76.4 × 3.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Bohen Foundation in honor of Thomas N. Armstrong III  2001.275 For Teachers
Courtesy of the Artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

about this work

Glenn Ligon borrowed the words repeated across Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored) from a 1928 essay by Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” which considers the idea that skin color is a social construction. In his painting, Ligon applied the phrase “I do not always feel colored” to the canvas over and over by rubbing oil stick through a plastic stencil onto the gessoed surface of a door. Ligon’s technique allowed for a remarkably subtle range of optical and expressive effects, depending on which black oil stick he used, how many times he went over a letter, and how often he cleaned the back of his template. As Ligon worked his way down the support, the text became progressively smudged and illegible because the greasy oil stick left a residue that adhered to the stencil. This transition from block-letter clarity to illegibility is a meaningful effect, playing on the idea of text as something that is shifting and malleable. “It makes the words cast shadows, bleed into one another, [so that] their meanings seem less fixed,” remarked Ligon about his technique. “The smearing also creates a visual interaction with the gesso ground, a metaphor for the interaction between blacks and whites in the construction of racial identity.”

Maxwell L. Anderson. American Visionaries: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2001), 187.

look closer

Take a close look at this painting. What happens to the words? 

What do you think the word “colored” means in this work of art? 

Who might be saying “I do not always feel colored?” Why do you think that? 

Have you ever felt different from everyone else? How? 

Activities

Glenn Ligon is interested in words and text and how they might represent or misrepresent a given idea. In Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored), Ligon borrowed a phrase from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” In this essay, Hurston described how she did not see herself as black or different from other people until, at the age of thirteen, she was sent to school outside of Eatonville, Florida, the tightly-knit African American community where she grew up. 

Ligon said, “One of the things that I’ve always been interested in was the connection or collision of identities–that something written by [Zora Neale] Hurston in the 20s could seem incredibly relevant and autobiographical in some sense, that one could inhabit it.”

Ask students to think about a book they have read, a song they have listened to, or a speech they have heard, that they related to, even if it was from a different time, place, or culture. Ask students to share what the book, song or speech is about. Why do they feel that connection?

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