From the Page to the Painting: Literary Connections

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 2002, coal dust, printing ink, oil stick, glue, acrylic paint, and gesso on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art Fund, 2004.29, © 2002 Glenn Ligon

This work features the opening lines of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “A Stranger in the Village.” The story traces Baldwin’s time in a Swiss village where the majority of residents had never encountered a person of African descent. 

As a fellow gay Black man, Glenn Ligon incorporated Baldwin’s words in hundreds of his works. (Learn more about the artist’s interpretation of this essay and his choice of materials here.)

Glittering coal dust glued to a black surface makes the words nearly impossible to decipher. Similarly, the author and artist share their experiences of being seen but not understood.

Gordon Parks, Emerging Man, Harlem, 1952, gelatin silver print, Dallas Museum of Art, anonymous gift via Charles Wylie to honor Catherine and Will Rose, 2007.62.2, © Estate of Gordon Parks

As a staff photographer for Life magazine, Gordon Parks created the photo-essay “A Man Becomes Invisible” in conjunction with the publication of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Parks and Ellison were friends and shared an interest in raising the visibility of Black lives in postwar United States.

Ellison’s unnamed, Black protagonist lives in an underground room. He is protected from a racist society only by remaining invisible—hidden below ground.

Parks imagines Ellison’s protagonist warily emerging from his subterranean sanctuary, an event only hinted at in the book’s epilogue.

Lorna Simpson, Blue Turned Temporal, 2019, ink, watercolor, and screenprint on gessoed fiberglass, Dallas Museum of Art, TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art Fund, 2020.16, © Lorna Simpson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: James Wang

This work was first shown in “Darkening,” a 2019 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York City. The exhibition opened with an excerpt from Robin Coste Lewis’s poem “Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit, Thinking About the Arctic and Matthew Henson.”

The poem points to one of the many layers of meaning behind Lorna Simpson’s choice of subject. Matthew Henson was an African American explorer who made seven trips to the Arctic between 1891 and 1912.

The brilliant color of Blue Turned Temporal resonates with lines from Lewis’s poem that note the absence of white and whiteness in the frozen northern environment. “The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue.” (Read Lewis’s full poem.)

Emily Schiller is the Head of Interpretation at the DMA.


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