Paris Review, 2016

Rivers, First Draft

by Caille Millner, 2016

Lorraine O’Grady’s living Künstlerroman

In 1982, the artist Lorraine O’Grady staged her first major performance piece in Central Park, “Rivers, First Draft.” In the park’s bucolic Loch section, the audience watched a black woman in a red dress walk down the ravine. Red is a sign for wanton women, and this one was in the company of wild-eyed dancers, barely clothed—all of them white. She was shy, lingering behind the dancers as they shimmied and shook down the hill. When she caught up and tried to engage them, they spurned her.

So the woman in red wandered over to a door. Several black male artists were gathered behind it. She knocked, and they, too, turned her away. While she hesitated, hoping to change their minds, the dancers returned and attacked her with Dionysian energy.

It doesn’t take an academic to find the narrative: her heroine’s layers of gender and racial difference—what today we might call her intersectionality—was affecting her ability to find an artistic community. There was a sly bitterness in the fact that O’Grady staged her heroine’s rejections with the kinds of New York cliques that liked to advertise how inclusive they were. Her staging suggested that real life wasn’t that simple. In this context, her heroine’s red dress was less a marker of her actual behavior and more a sign of the social threat she represented.

O’Grady has described the piece as her most personal. It’s also, in its way, instructional: a kind of Künstlerroman, it’s one of the clearest how-to guides for women of color on how to become artists. In the hands of a lesser artist, the attack is the moment when “Rivers” would start to fall apart—to get bogged in the muck of identity politics. Instead, O’Grady showed a way out. Her woman in red escaped the dancers and ran from the male artists’ door. When she was alone again, she considered the final object in front of her. It was a stove: a classic totem of female entrapment. Calmly, she took up a can of spray paint.

In 1980s New York City, the spray can was a sign, too—of defiance, demand. The woman shot paint at the stove until it was as red as her dress. Only when they wore the same color did she stand before it to cook—to begin, that is, creating her own work.

For the woman in red and her audience, that moment at the stove was every bit as defining as Stephen Dedalus’s epiphany in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.” The first incidence of artistic transformation is a crucial moment in every Künstlerroman. What’s significant about “Rivers” is that it was addressed to a group, young black women, that’s historically had few of them. (…)

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