Glenn Ligon, No 291 (Language), 1988


NARRATOR: This painting, featuring the word “language” in orange stenciled letters on black, is part of a series based on “dream books”—pamphlets that offered ways to interpret one’s dreams. These pamphlets were common in the African American community in which Ligon grew up. The empty whorl of paint in the center of each work, quiet in some images and feverish in others, visually evokes the state of dreaming. We can see one of Ligon’s early attempts to merge language and abstract painting. Glenn Ligon:

GLENN LIGON: My early painting heroes were all the abstract expressionists, de Kooning, Kline, Jackson Pollock. It didn't make sense for me to try to be a fourth or fifth generation abstract expressionist, but my, my first love was those paintings, and I'm constantly going back to them.

NARRATOR: The dream books suggest interpretations about various subjects—sailors, sweethearts—or here, speaking a foreign language. They also offered lucky numbers to play in an underground lottery known as the “numbers.”

GLENN LIGON:  I was very interested in those dream interpretations because they were clever, they used language in interesting ways. Also, there's a bit of family history, because my father, after his long shifts at the General Motors plant in upstate New York, worked at a numbers parlor.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), _No. 291 (Language)_, 1988. Oil, synthetic polymer, oil stick, and graphite on paper. 30 x 22 1/4 in. (76.2 x 56.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Emily Fisher Landau © Glenn Ligon; photograph by Tim Nighswander/Imaging4art.com