IT WAS THE FIRST LOT OF THE NIGHT, a white-on-white text painting by Glenn Ligon. Originally executed in 1990 and repainted in 2003, “Untitled (I Was Somebody)” opened Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction and sold for more than $3.9 million, according to sales results. The price was well over twice the estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million and set a record for Ligon.

Major auction houses including Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s have scheduled much-anticipated fall sales this week. Held last night, the first event was at Sotheby’s. The Nov. 11 sale was the first time the Ligon painting was presented at auction and it came with a guarantee from Sotheby’s that proved unnecessary given the winning bid of $3,973,000 (including fees) far exceeded expectations.

i was somebody - detail
Lot 1: GLENN LIGON, Detail of “Untitled (I Was Somebody),” 1990, 2003 (oilstick, graphite and gesso on panel) | Estimate $1 million – $1.5 million. Sold for $3,973,000 including fees.

The catalog essay describes the significance of the painting, an oilstick, graphite and gesso on panel work, standing 80 inches high and measuring 30 inches wide. “Of the just twenty-one door paintings ever produced by the artist, the present work is the only monochromatic example with white text on a white ground, making it a supremely rare paragon of Ligon’s most acclaimed body of work,” the essay notes. “Untitled (I Was Somebody)” is considered one of the most significant paintings by the artist, and represents the pinnacle of Ligon’s achievements.”

Ligon’s work has consistently invoked the power of language. He began making text paintings in the late 1980s, drawing on the candid speech of Richard Pryor, blunt lyrics by Ice Cube and the eloquent, passionate and insightful words of literary figures James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston in an ongoing exploration of black identity and the challenges of navigating White America.

Glenn Ligon’s work has consistently invoked the power of language. He began making text paintings in the late 1980s, drawing on the insightful words of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston.

The auction lot references “I Am Somebody,” a 1950s poem by Rev. William Holmes Borders, a civil rights activist. Popularized by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ligon appropriates the phrase for a painting with black text against a white background. (This black and white version inspired a new tote bag collaboration between Ligon and MZ Wallace. The proceeds benefit education programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem.)

For the monochromatic white painting, he changes the phrase to past tense and works with an absence of color. Created using stencils and layers of paint, the phrase “I Was Somebody” is repeated over-and-over again, line-by-line in the work until it almost recedes into the background. The white-on-white words are raised, but barely legible. It’s as though its identity has been obscured, its message silenced and fighting to be heard.

“Just as James Baldwin reflected on how Americans have made ‘an abstraction of the Negro,'” the Sotheby’s essay continues, “here the application of oilstick and gesso on panel combined with the dense overlaying of text create an overall abstraction in relief, its clarity strained in its riveting textural denseness.”

LISTEN to Glenn Ligon and exhibition curator Scott Rothkopf discuss “Untitled (I Was Somebody).” | Audio Source: Whitney Museum of American Art

THE 78-LOT SALE, WHICH TOTALED more than $343.6 million (including fees), also featured “Warm Broad Glow,” 2005, Ligon’s first-ever neon relief. According to Art Market Monitor,, it too set a record, bringing in $935,000 (including fees), the highest price for a neon work by the artist.

Both the white text painting and the neon installation were on view in “Glenn Ligon: AMERICA,” Ligon’s comprehensive mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum in 2011. Installed in the museum’s front window, the neon words “Negro Sunshine” lit up Madison Avenue for four months. CT

warm broad glow
Lot 48: GLENN LIGON, “Warm Broad Glow,” 2005 (neon installation; number one of an edition of one plus one artist’s proof). | Estimate $400,000 – $600,000. Sold for $935,000 including fees.

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