Art Is. . ., a joyful performance in Harlem's African-American Day Parade, September 1983, was, from the point of view of the work's connection with its audience, O'Grady's most immediately successful piece. It's impetus had been to answer the challenge of a non-artist acquaintance that "avant-garde art doesn't have anything to do with black people." O'Grady's response was to put avant-garde art into the largest black space she could think of, the million-plus viewers of the parade, to prove her friend wrong. It was a risk, since there was no guarantee the move would actually work. As a black Boston Brahman cum Greenwich Village bohemian, with roots in West Indian carnival, for O'Grady the Harlem marching-band parade was alien territory. But the performance was undertaken in a spirit of elation which carried over on the day. Unlike the disappointment she'd felt with Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and The Black and White Show, this piece was to be about art, not about the art world. . . rather than an invasion, it was more a crashing of the party. Although she had received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to do the piece, she decided not to broadcast it to the art world. She wanted to it to be a pure gesture, she told friends, in the style of Duchamps (whose work she had been teaching at SVA for several years). But this may also have been insulation against further frustration, a way to strengthen the sense of freedom. The 9 x 15 ft. antique-styled gold frame mounted on the gold-skirted float moved slowly up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, framing everything it passed as art, and the 15 young actors and dancers dressed in white framed viewers with empty gold picture frames to shouts of "Frame me, make me art!" and "That's right, that's what art is, WE're the art!" O'Grady's decision was affirmed. With her mother Lena now in the later stages of Alzheimer's, she would withdraw from the art world and not make art for the next five years
Unpublished email exchange, 1998
The most comprehensive and focused interview of O’Grady to date, this Q & A by a Duke University doctoral candidate benefited from the slowness of the email format, the African American feminist scholar’s deep familiarity with O’Grady’s work, and their personal friendship.
. . . . Baker: As a set up, the two pieces I want to focus on are Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, mostly because there is more written on those pieces and I feel I have a better handle on them. Do you think this is okay, or am I remiss in leaving out some of your other performance work?
O’Grady: I understand why you’d know more about those two. Art Is. . ., the parade piece I did in Harlem, was intentionally less well known as I did it basically outside the art world.
. . . .
by Lorraine O’Grady and Moira Roth, unpublished, 2007
During an e-mail exchange in which they were sharing ideas and work, O’Grady sent Roth a copy of Lucy Lippard’s review of Art Is. . . . Roth’s questions prompted O’Grady to elaborate on the making and meaning of the performance.
. . . .
I’m not surprised when people don’t know much about Art Is. . . I did it during my “Duchamp” years. At the time, I was teaching the Dadas and the Futurists at SVA and thinking of myself as a purist. Because the piece wasn’t addressed to the art world, I didn’t advertise it. I’ve changed a lot since then! The answers to your questions are fairly intertwined.
When I did the piece I was living in the West Village, in the same building I’d been living since arriving in New York via Chicago in ‘72. . . . I’m definitely a “downtown” type and had dreamt of being in the Village since I was 10 years old. When I was a teenager in the late 40s growing up in Boston, I would devour magazines with pictures of girls in long black skirts, black turtlenecks and black berets, drinking expresso and puffing on cigarettes in 4th Street cafes.
By late 1982, I’d been “out” as an artist for more than two years and had been invited by the Heresies collective, not to join the mother collective but to work on issue #13 of their journal, the one that was named "Racism Is the Issue." The “issue” collective was a mixed group of artists and non-artists that included Ana Mendieta, Cindy Carr, Carole Gregory, Lucy and many others. It was a fractious group. One of the women in it was a black social worker whose name I don’t recall. I only remember that one evening at a meeting she said to me scathingly: "Avant-garde art doesn't have anything to do with black people!" I didn’t know how to answer her, but I wanted to prove she was wrong.
Her comment stayed with me. But where would I find the “black people” to answer her? Perhaps because I am West Indian and a great believer in Carnival, the idea of putting avant-garde art into a parade came to me. But I knew instinctively that I couldn’t put it into the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. There was so much real art in that parade it would drown out the avant-garde! So I decided on the African American Day Parade in Harlem, which was comparatively tame and commercial — you know, ooompa-ooompa marching bands and beer company adverts. My first idea was to mount several pieces on a parade float and just march it up 7th Avenue. But when I went to rent a flatbed from the company in New Jersey that supplies them, the owner told me: "You know, you have a maximum of three minutes, from the time a float comes into view on the horizon, stops-and-starts, then is out of sight at the other end." That shook me. So I switched, from putting art into the parade to trying to create an art experience for the viewers. I asked the artists George Mingo and Richard DeGussi to help me. They built a 9 x 15 foot antique-styled, empty gold frame on the flatbed, which we covered with a gold metallic-paper skirt that had "Art Is. . . " in big, black letters on both sides. Then I put an ad in Billboard and hired 15 gorgeous young black actors and dancers, male and female, dressed them in white, and gave them gold picture frames of various styles and told them to frame viewers along the parade route. They did this while hopping on and off the parade float, according to how fast it was moving or whether it was stalled.
The piece was done in 1983, with a grant from the NY State Council on the Arts, but as I said, it was done during my "Duchamp" years. Hahaha. I told the people at Just Above Midtown, the black avant-garde gallery I showed with, and the women in the Heresies racism collective knew about it, but almost noone else. The only person I gave slides to was Lucy Lippard, who was in both the Heresies mother and issue collectives and wrote about the piece five years later in Z. Lucy later printed two images in her book Mixed Blessings. But nothing else happened with that piece. I was shocked when, a few years ago, Johanna Drucker asked me for slides for a book she was writing. I thought noone had noticed.
It’s funny. The organizers of the parade were totally mystified by me and by the performance. The announcer made fun of the float as it passed the reviewing stand: "They tell me this is art, but you know the Studio Museum? I don't understand that stuff."
But the people on the parade route got it. Everywhere there were shouts of: "That's right. That's what art is. WE're the art!" And, "Frame ME, make ME art!" It was amazing.
by Lucy Lippard. 1988
Highlighted box review, taking a retrospective look at O’Grady’s 1983 performance Art Is . . .. In “Sniper’s Nest,” Z Magazine, July-August 1988, p 102
One of the most effectively Janus-faced artworks of the last few years was Lorraine O’Grady’s float for the Afro-American Parade in Harlem. The title, “Art Is…” was emblazoned on the side of a huge, ornate, gold frame that rode on a float. The artist and a group of other women, dressed in white, hopped on and off the float as the parade progressed and held up smaller gold frames to children, cops, and other onlookers, making portraits of the local audience as the big frame made landscapes of the passing local environment.
The direct message of course was: Art is what you make it; Harlem and black people are as worthy as any other subjects for Art. On a more complex level, O’Grady was commenting on the artist as manipulator and reflector, and the participatory role of exchange in culturally democratic art. The piece was about “framing and being framed,” to borrow a phrase from corporate critic Hans Haacke. The initially simple idea opens up the field of art to include what has until now been peripheral vision, rarely projected on the centralized screens of galleries and museums.
O’Grady (who is black and has done performance pieces in the persona of Mademoiselle Black Bourgeoise) thus raises a layered set of questions about representation in high art. These questions were posed in the community and radiated to current analyses of stereotypes and representational exclusions in the mass and other media. The gold frame raises another set of questions about class, context, and autonomy. When photographically documented, the piece shows black women choosing their subjects, as well as a mutual exchange or collaboration, in which the artist or framers and their found subjects mutually determine the focus on the art, thus illustrating a process of self-determination sparked by an art process.
The piece can also translate effectively from its primary audience, Harlem residents, to a secondary one, the art world. The direct, intimate, photobooth process taking place within the parade as public drama allows the art to be both entertaining and affirming. The indirect process by which little recoding is needed for use in the “art world” opens up layers of meaning about the history of modernism and its constant search for the new, the history of collage and performance and site-specific art as potentially populist forms, and the one-liner as potential paragraph. And, finally, O’Grady’s piece scrutinizes the multiple meanings of the frame itself—physical (gold and theoretical (ways of seeing).
New York in Review
A review of O’Grady’s first solo exhibit at INTAR Gallery, NYC, that focuses on her work in performance. Selected from Gretchen Faust’s column, "New York in Review," ARTS Magazine, vol 65, no 8, April 1991, p 98.
It is always a little frustrating to write reviews in a short format, as it only allows one to touch on issues and highlight aspects of the work discussed. Though valuable, every once and awhile I come across a show that really demands more time and space consideration. The first solo show of Lorraine O’Grady’s photomontages (INTAR, January 21–February 22) is just such a show. O’Grady couples her wide-angle art awareness with a keen sociopolitical consciousness. The gallery is divided into four sections; each has a different “theme” relative to her two overall queries: What should we do? countered by What is there time for? As stated in the press release, the four rooms reflect, in order: 1) cultural criticism, 2) autobiography, 3) black female reclamation, and 4) work in and for the community. Each of the rooms contains photomontages exploring, through manipulated imagery, the assigned theme. Cultural criticism includes documentation of O’Grady’s best known and most acclaimed performance work, Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire. In this performance, O’Grady takes on an assumed and striking character, who dresses in a formal gown and cape fashioned from literally hundreds of white gloves. It is in this guise that O’Grady has appeared, unannounced and uninvited, at art openings as a virtual apparition/voice of conscience that “denounces Black artists’ political passivity in the face of curatorial and critical apartheid” and attacks “Black aesthetic timidity” (as stated in Judith Wilson’s catalogue essay, entitled Lorraine O’Grady: Critical Interventions). The second room explores autobiography and includes photographs documenting a metaphorical coming-of-age ritual/performance entitled Rivers: First Draft, involving several multi-racial players, which took place in Central Park in 1982. A compare-and-contrast collage that pairs images of the artist’s sister with those of Nefertiti is featured in the third room, and the fourth focuses on the documentation of a collaborative project, including the artists George Mingo and Richard DeGussi, which consisted of a large float, part of the 1983 Afro-American Day parade in Harlem. The float, Art is. . ., sported open gilt frames that were held out over the crowds, thus implying that anything caught within their boundaries was deemed art. In this piece O’Grady engages the relationship between contextualization and content in a joyous event, available and interesting to all. It is this ability to be direct and effective on a level that is both internally complex and essentially based in realism that distinguishes this work by an artist out on the bridge that seems to span the gap between art and life.
Judith Wilson, 1991
Catalogue essay written for O’Grady’s first gallery solo exhibition, “Lorraine O’Grady,” INTAR Gallery, 420 W 42nd Street, New York City, January 21 – February 22, 1991.
. . . . Cultural Criticism
As an unpublished letter from O’Grady to the . . . editor of Art in America pointed out, [John Fekner’s Toxic Junkie mural] had been created, at her request, for the show as a means of “connecting the art inside the gallery with what was happening on the street.”
The latter preoccupation would be central to O’Grady’s next Mlle Bourgeoise Noire event. While working on an issue of the feminist art journal Heresies devoted to the question of racism she had been piqued by a Black woman poet’s assertion that “Black people don’t relate to avant-garde art.” With funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, O’Grady collaborated with artists George Mingo and Richard DeGussi in the creation of a float and accompanying performance for Harlem’s fall 1983 Afro-American Day Parade (illus. 6, 7).
Entitled Art Is . . ., the float consisted of a giant gilt frame mounted upright on a gold fabric-covered float bed, pulled by a pickup truck. The float’s title was inscribed on the side of this bed. Flanking the float, as it advanced, were teams of white garbed assistants who held smaller, empty frames up to the faces of some of the estimated half million or so on-lookers lining 125th Street. The piece was enthusiastically received by its audience, who offered spontaneous shouts of approval (“That’s right, that’s what art is! WE’re the art”) and competing pleas (“Frame me! Make ME art!”).
As O’Grady has noted, the parade format — with its ties to the rich array of Afro/Latino carnival traditions — is one that has particular cultural resonance for her as an African-American of West Indian descent. In exploiting this pop cultural mode, she “is one of the few artworld artists to have availed herself of such festive opportunities to escape ‘cultural confinement’ in the [artworld’s] ivory-walled towers,” critic Lucy Lippard has written. Here, for the first time, O’Grady extended her role as cultural critic to embrace the larger Black community, normally abandoned by both White and Black artists in their pursuit of esoteric aesthetic discourses.
The sense of triumphant generosity conveyed by the social breadth and exuberance of Art Is . . . (illus. 6, 7) probably reflects O’Grady’s having won two prestigious grants that year — a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a CAPS fellowship award. Despite these important affirmations of her talent, 1983 closed on a grim note for the artist, who learned in December that her mother was afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. Her artistic career came to a halt while she devoted the next four and a half years to her mother’s care.
by Massimiliano Gioni, with Anny Shaw, 5-6 December, 2009
A one-paragraph notice with photo in The Art Newspaper, the publication that carries the most clout at the fair. Points to ways in which O’Grady’s piece questions market values.
by Nick Mauss, 2009
Mauss’s article for Artforum is, with Wilson’s INTAR catalogue essay, one of the most extended and authoritative pieces on O’Grady’s oeuvre to date. It was one-half of a two-article feature that also included O’Grady’s artist portfolio for The Black and White Show.
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.