Drawn into Conversation: Glenn Ligon, Gertrude Stein, and Study for Negro Sunshine #2

White background with black stencils letters, many smudged.Study for Negro Sunshine #2 (2004), a drawing in oil stick and coal dust on paper by the American artist Glenn Ligon (born 1960), repeats across the eleven horizontal lines of its composition the letters that make up the words “negro sunshine.” Ligon used a stencil to form the letters, moving it over the surface of the paper as he applied the oil-stick medium, and smudging the text in the process. Coal dust applied to the still-wet oil stick further obscures the stenciled letters, especially toward the bottom of the drawing, where the dust clings to the smudges of oil stick. Letters become more difficult to recognize, and words more difficult to read, as they are scanned left to right and top to bottom across the sheet, while marks left behind by the movement of the stencil register as illegible traces of the repetitive process of making  the drawing, mostly along the left edge.

About working with the stencil—a device he first adopted in the late 1980s when making paintings that presented sentences and longer passages from works by writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Jean Genet, and James Baldwin—Ligon has said, “It’s a way to be semi-mechanical, to make letters that are not handwriting but have personality. Handwriting would make these quotations too much mine, and stencils give it a bit more distance. They also allow me to keep being painterly but also have the kind of content I want a painting to have.”1

In Study for Negro Sunshine #2, the words are borrowed from “Melanctha,” an experimental modernist novella by the American poet Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) written in Paris in 1905–6 and published in Stein’s first book, Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena (1909). Like the stories of the working-class German immigrant women Anna and Lena, the story of Melanctha Herbert, a biracial Black woman, takes place around 1900 in Bridgepoint, a fictional counterpart to Baltimore, where Stein lived as a young woman. “Melanctha” begins by describing not Melanctha, but her friend Rose Johnson, whose disposition and skin color contrast with Melanctha’s. It is from the description of Rose that Ligon borrowed the words “negro sunshine,” a phrase that, according to Ligon, “ stuck in [his] head.”2

Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled.

Rose Johnson was a real black negress but she had been brought up quite like their own child by white folks.

Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes. Hers was just ordinary, any sort of woman laughter

The racializing language that emerges in the description of Rose Johnson on the first page of Stein’s text pervades the novella, framing the depictions of the behaviors and speech patterns of the characters as well as the explorations of the thought processes imputed to those characters. According to Ligon, while “one could say, just on the face of it,” that the description of Black characters in “Melanctha” is “just a racist kind of description,” Stein’s writing is “so complex in the way she keeps describing the same characters over and over again that you’re never quite sure what she thinks or what they mean.”3 Of the novella’s depiction of Rose Johnson, Ligon has said, “it’s brutal—but, there’s a gem in there: negro sunshine.”4 Ambivalence shapes the relationship between the form of Ligon’s art and that of Stein’s writing, which have in common a movement toward abstraction by means of repetition. In “Melanctha,” while the novella repeats racial stereotypes, the phrase “just ordinary, any sort of woman laughter” anticipates Stein’s explorations, in her later works, of possibilities for portraying ways of being that would not be bound to identity. In Study for Negro Sunshine #2, Ligon seems to acknowledge that nascent anti-identitarian dimension of Stein’s text with skepticism, but not without interest.

Gray rectangle with words "negro sunshine" stenciled in a lighter shade.Stein’s formal experiment in iterative composition operates at the level of the sentence and the paragraph. Ligon, by contrast, extracts a phrase—“negro sunshine”— that comprises just two words from the prose of Stein’s novella, presenting a poetic epithet only to dismantle the epithet itself and the words of which it was originally composed in “Melanctha.” Notice that no line of letters in Ligon’s drawing offers the epithet in full. The first line interrupts the phrase’s second word so that we read not “negro sunshine” but “negro suns.” I see Ligon’s oil-stick-and-coal-dust inscription of the words “negro suns” as an intentional unmaking of Stein’s original phrase, a transformation of what is deemed “negro” into “suns” in place of “sunshine,” and with that a creation of “negro” agents in place of “negro” effects. In addition to a claim of agency, the phrase “negro suns” might be read as an ironic homophonic statement of affiliation on Ligon’s part, a making “mother” of the white lesbian writer by an act of the Black gay artist as “son.”

The word “sunshine” appears whole only in the third line, where the letters that make up the sun’s “shine” are more obscure than the letters that precede them, as if to evoke a darkening of this “sun” as integral to the appearance of its effect, its “shine”—as if, that is, to create a figural form that would materialize, graphically, the semantic complexity of the poetic epithet “negro sunshine.” The completeness of that “sunshine” is emphasized by what appears to be a punctuation mark that follows it (a full stop). The coal dust, a waste product from coal processing deployed as an artistic medium, expands the drawing’s figural explorations of the dynamics of agency and effect as it adds a hint of shine to the letters, a shine that is inseparable from the inherent darkness of the medium. The next word—“negro”—follows only in pieces, its “n” placed immediately after the full stop, severed from the “egro” that launches the line below, as if to stage a negation of the capacity of the word “negro” to signify anything at all. The drawing’s final two lines effect a similar severing. The word “sunshine” splits across the caesura of those lines into “s” and “unshine,” the latter a would-be neologism that suggests an undoing of the effect originally named in Stein’s epithet. A full stop follows the final line’s “unshine,” and an “n” follows that full stop. Might that “n,” like the “un” in “unshine,” be an “n” as in “no”? Might it also still be an “n” as in “negro,” now a letter leaving open for the future the possibility of the inscription of the whole of the phrase “negro sunshine”?

“My pieces are concerned,” Ligon has said, “with figuring out how to do something that the text does, but to do something else at the same time.”5 Doing something Stein’s text does, Ligon’s drawing experiments with the capacity of words to signify differently when presented in an iterative composition. Doing something else at the same time, the drawing makes of its own graphic means a device for recasting “negro sunshine” as something other than a sign for a racial stereotype.

Study for Negro Sunshine #2 is not a study in the sense that it is not a preparatory drawing. Rather, it is an early work in a series that includes examples made as recently as 2019. Study for Negro Sunshine #2 and other early drawings in the series anticipated the appearance of the words “negro sunshine” in a neon relief sculpture Ligon made in 2005, Warm Broad Glow, whose title is also a citation from the passage from “ Melanctha” quoted above. Reshaped in a font called American Typewriter and scaled up to sixteen feet across by three feet high, the white neon letters in Warm Broad Glow might call to mind a commercial sign. Seen in person, however, the perceptual effects of Warm Broad Glow are unlike those produced by commercial signage, and also notably unlike the effects produced by minimalist and post-minimalist neon works by artists such as Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman.

In Stein’s text, “warm broad glow” names an effect of an effect, the effect of “negro sunshine” as an effect of a certain stereotypical racial disposition that Rose Johnson lacks but other Black personages in the novella have. In Warm Broad Glow, an industrial compound called Plasti Dip has been painted onto the front of each letter so that the relief casts the better part of its glow toward the wall on which it hangs, with the wires that supply the neon with electricity hanging down to meet transformers set out on the floor.6 Black and opaque, the paint on the front of the neon letters reads as a kind of inscription across the surface of the sculptural relief, which itself transposes the shapes of typically black, two-dimensional typewritten characters into three-dimensional, bright white illuminated forms. Taken together, the work’s allusions to writing and painting by hand, to the fabrication of texts and artworks by machine, to the gallery wall as support for the artwork, and to the technology for energy transfer that generates the voltage necessary for a neon sign to deliver its message call attention to how, in Warm Broad Glow, Ligon “figure[ed] out how to do something that [Stein’s] text does, but to do something else at the same time.” 

Study for Negro Sunshine #2 does the critical work of extracting and dismantling the phrase “negro sunshine” as a prelude to Ligon’s making the poetic epithet his own in Warm Broad Glow. As Ligon noted of “negro sunshine” in 2021, “taken out of [the] context [of Stein’s novella], it has a totally different kind of connotation and meaning. Black joy exists, now and historically, despite the history of this country. There is such a thing as ‘negro sunshine,’ ‘negro joy,’ ‘Black joy.’ And that feels very of-the-moment, even though the text is 100 years old.”7

Brigid Doherty
Associate Professor of German and Art and Archaeology

1 Glenn Ligon, quoted in Carol Vogel, “The Inside Story on Outsiderness,” New York Times, February 24, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/arts/design/27ligon.html.

2 Ligon in “Inside Story on Outsiderness.“

3 Glenn Ligon, interview by Lyric Prince, “Glenn Ligon: To Be a Negro in This Country Is Really Never to Be Looked At,“ Sugarcane Magazine, March 5, 2019, https://sugarcanemag.com/2019/03/glen-ligon-to-be-a-negro-in-this-country-is-really-never-to-be-looked-at/.

4 Glenn Ligon, in “Glenn Ligon on ‘Warm Broad Glow II,’” YouTube video, 5:08, posted by Glenstone Museum, September 28, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZuw7b6R9ss.

5 Glenn Ligon, “Hotel Blues: A Conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum,“ in Yourself in the World: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Scott Rothkopf (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 154.

6 Warm Broad Glow (2005) was first shown in Glenn Ligon: Some Changes at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2005. See Richard Meyer, “Light It Up, or How Glenn Ligon Got Over,“ Artforum, May 2006, 240–47. Ligon produced several more works in similar formats, including Warm Broad Glow II (2011), shown in Glenn Ligon: AMERICA at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2011 and now in the collection of Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland.

7 Ligon, “Glenn Ligon on Warm Broad Glow II.“

Bridging the Collections and the Classroom with the Laura P. Hall Fund

This acquisition was made possible through the Laura P. Hall Memorial Fund, an endowment supporting the acquisition of drawings and prints jointly proposed and approved by faculty from the Department of Art and Archaeology and the Art Museum. In preparing for her fall 2021 Freshman Seminar, “A Portrait of the Artist As . . . ,“ Professor Brigid Doherty learned of the opportunity to acquire Glenn Ligon’s Study for Negro Sunshine #2, recognizing both its merit for the Museum’s collections and its value as an object of study for her teaching. She partnered with Mitra Abbaspour, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and the drawing entered the Museum’s collections in 2021. Students in the fall 2021 seminar were able to study this and other works by Ligon in person during a session at the Museum’s off-site classroom with Doherty and Abbaspour. “A Portrait of the Artist As . . .“ will be offered again in spring 2023.

Erratum: The printed version of this article, which appeared in the Museum’s Fall 2022 Magazine, erroneously omitted the second to last sentence in the sixth paragraph. The corrected text appears here.