Five from the Whitney Biennial: Lorraine O’Grady
by Aimee Walleston, Art in America
“There are lots of twists to me, because I’m not like your usual artist,” (under-)stated Conceptual performance and visual artist Lorraine O’Grady last week. Born in Boston, the 75-year-old O’Grady (she looks and acts like an incredibly bright, beautiful person half her age) has never been comfortable in the white box, leading instead a life in pursuit of new forms of knowledge. An economics major at Wellesley, she studied postgraduate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; then she was a rock critic, before becoming a theorist of feminism and race. She says her most important contribution to feminism is not art, it’s a 1992/94 article on the black female body in art, “Olympia’s Maid,” a classic in Women’s Studies programs. A daughter of West Indian émigrés, O’Grady was herself a teenage mom (“I got pregnant and married, in that order”)—almost 30 years and myriad identity incarnations later, she became an uncompromising artist with a resolutely political practice. And, some 30 years from that point, her work is finally being celebrated in earnest: following her conclusion in 2007’s WACK show, she was selected for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
O’Grady came to New York in 1972 ago under far different circumstances. After finishing at Iowa, she joined her boyfriend, the new head of publicity at Columbia Records, in New York. “It was all very glamorous, but for somebody with a brain in their head, it was pretty bad to just be somebody’s ‘old lady’—to be dressing up as a pretty little chick and going to parties. I couldn’t justify my life doing that, she says. So, of course, O’Grady became a rock critic. Earning $50 an article and selling records to augment her income, she began teaching an English class at The School of Visual Arts. “I became an artist as a result of being at SVA. Within two or three months I was so struck by the energy and attitude, I was so amazed. Some of the students couldn’t even really write—but yet they were so smart.” O’Grady is best known for creating the character Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, who first appeared in 1980 at an opening at the Just Above Midtown Gallery, which primarily showed the work of black avant-garde artists. Clothed in a gown made from 180 pairs of white gloves, carrying a hand-made cat o’ nine tails, she “invaded” the opening of the gallery’s “Outlaw Aesthetics” show ( . . . )