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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.