Artspace, 2015

Feature article on “Art Is…” and why it might not work today

by Karen Rosenberg, 2015

The 1983 African-American Day Parade, on Harlem’s 125 Street, included a rather unusual float—a gold-skirted vehicle topped by a giant, gilded picture frame. Atop it, 15 actors in all-white clothing danced with smaller frames; as the float moved along its route, they leapt out into the crowd and held them up to intrigued spectators, who summarily found themselves making art, or having art made of them.

This curious contribution to the parade was a project by the veteran conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady, who now has a large critical and curatorial following but was then in the early stages of her career. She made the piece (which bore the wonderfully open-ended title of Art Is… ) with a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts and nothing in the way of publicity, at a time when documenting performance art was almost an afterthought and marketing it was a joke.

Art Is… was an experiment of sorts, contemporaneous with but less strident than O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoise Noire performances, in which she appeared in a kind of pageant-queen costume at gallery openings and exhorted fellow black artists to “take more risks.”

But over time, and as the study of performance art has expanded, it has come to be known as one of her signature pieces—exhibited in such diverse contexts as Art Basel Miami Beach (2009), Prospect 2: New Orleans (2011-12), and the touring survey of ‘80s art “This Will Have Been” (2012).

Now the artwork has come home to the neighborhood where it took shape. This summer, for the first time, all 40 photographs from the performance are on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem (through October 25). There, viewers can spot vanished local landmarks like the Renaissance Ballroom and the Lickety Split Cocktail Lounge in the background of the parade pictures while contemplating the area’s ongoing transformation (the museum just announced plans to construct a new $122 million, David Adjaye designed building on its current site.)

In a conversation with Artspace deputy editor Karen Rosenberg, O’Grady spoke about the social and logistical challenges of making Art Is… , its evolution on the web and in recent exhibitions, and the reasons it could not be performed today. (….)

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