Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon uses strategies of reading to reframe historical and cultural narratives. Ligon's works are generally composed with quotes from writers who range across modernist, popular, and specifically African American cultural traditions. His works grasp language as material and subject matter, and elicit incisive inquiries into issues of visibility, race, identity, and history.

Guiding Questions

How Can The Master’s Tools Dismantle The Master’s House?

Glenn Ligon painted “How Can the Master’s Tools Dismantle the Master’s House?” in 1990, during the period of his first experimentations with written language in painting.


The following exercises are structured to sequentially build on each other. We encourage you to consider how their learning objectives develop as you adapt these exercises to your teaching activities

Activity Group 1: Reading is a Creative Act

We often assume that an author’s voice is a definitive authority, or that images convey true or trustworthy representations. Yet texts and images need not be read as imposing unquestionable knowledge, but rather, as invitations for dialog.

Activity Group 2: Language Shapes our Ways of Perceiving the World, Ourselves and Each Other

This activity group explores how language can both restrict and expand our ways of understanding and acting in the world. We focus on Ligon's 1990 painting “Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background),” which is based on a line from Zora Neale Hurston's How it Feels to Be Colored Me.

Activity Group 3: We Shape our Stories Through the Words of Others

In this section, we explore how our identities are shaped through the ideas and stories of those around us. We then consider how identity is not static but rather shaped by our contexts and conversations with others. In doing so, we focus on several examples in which Ligon creates a self-portrait out of the words of others

Ways of Reading

Ways of Reading focuses on Glenn Ligon’s artist’s book, A People on the Cover, with readings contributed by artist Moyra Davey, literary critic Tobi Haslett, designer Joseph Logan, and artist Byron Kim. Each introduce a distinct perspective and strategy that readers can use to decode the many texts and images they encounter.

View pages from Glenn Ligon's A People on the Cover

Tobi Haslett

I love that picture of a young James Baldwin on the front of Notes of a Native Son because his face is like his prose: a Sphinx-like riddle of elegance and force.

Joseph Logan

When I look at A People on the Cover, my first thought is that I am glad that we decided to leave the cover blank.

Byron Kim

Of course the first thing I notice is that the cover of this book is blank. And then I notice that the book is filled with book covers, which makes the decision to keep the cover of this book blank inevitable and smart.

Moyra Davey

When a book contains pictures I almost always look at these first, for the sheer pleasure of the visual stimulus (as is the case with Glenn Ligon’s book), but also to get an overview, a quick first impression of the drift and content, the trajectory of the unfolding material.


Reading Resources: Glenn Ligon is available as a downloadable PDF.

We would also love to hear how you have used Reading Resources. Please share feedback and student work at [email protected].


Reading Resources: Glenn Ligon was produced by Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in collaboration with Wendy Tronrud (A.R.T. Education Consultant) in summer 2016.

Contributors to Ways of Reading:
Moyra Davey
Tobi Haslett
Byron Kim
Joseph Logan.

Copyedited by Sara Jane Stoner.

A.R.T. Staff: Alejandro Cesarco, Kylie Gilchrist, Jo Stewart.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:
Regen Projects
Luhring Augustine, specially Lauren Wittles and Lisa Vargehese
Ridinghouse Publications
New York University Art + Education Department and Professor Jessica Hamlin
A.R.T. Board of Directors
and most specially, Glenn Ligon.

We also acknowledge the assistance and support of institutions who have granted permission for image use:
Alexander Gray
Greene Naftali
Jack Shainman
Lehmann Maupin
Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Murray Guy
Sikkema Jenkins

Design by Document Services and Other Means.

Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc. 2016.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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