Art Is… Interview with Lorraine O’Grady
by Lorraine O’Grady with Amanda Hunt, Assistant Curator, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2015
Hunt, the curator of O’Grady’s solo exhibit of “Art Is…” at the SMH, discusses with her the images the artist still finds most intriguing, her process of gathering the images and more than a quarter of a century later organizing them into a new art work. Also touched on are the assembling of the performers and how they helped shape the piece.
In April 2015, Assistant Curator Amanda Hunt sat down with conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady to discuss her 1983 performance Art Is…, the subject of this summer’s exhibition of photographs at the Studio Museum. For the performance, O’Grady and a group of fifteen men and women dressed in white rode up Seventh Avenue in Harlem on a float in the African-American Day Parade decorated with the words “Art Is…” O’Grady and her collaborators jumped on and off the float at different points during the procession, and held up gold picture frames of various sizes to onlookers of the parade. The performance, in effect, made portraits of the people and landscapes of Harlem. Art Is… raised a number of questions about representation and framing as it joyfully declared its local subjects “art.” More than three decades later, the Studio Museum presents the full series of photos documenting the performance to bring the work back to its local origins.
Amanda Hunt: Lorraine, we began talking about the photographic documentation of your performance Art Is…, and about the potential configuration of images we would present at the Studio Museum, and we came to something really interesting. You touched on the idea of the “greatest hits”— the images that people have been most drawn to in this
series—and how over the course of more than thirty years, there are some more anomalous moments that have stuck with you for other reasons.
Lorraine O’Grady: I think that what I’m really talking about is the issue of ambiguity—a question of “What is it?” I mentioned to you that in one of the images there is a large apartment building caught in the large frame on the float that didn’t have any distinguishing aspects to it. People weren’t sitting out on the steps of the building the way they had been in other parts of the parade. There was a blankness to its architecture, so it was impossible to get a mental or emotional grip on it. There was something about not being able to imagine the life behind the blank windows, or even beyond the strange fluorescent lights in the long entrance leading to an inner courtyard—not being able to see anything, really. Whenever I look at that building, it still has this impenetrable mystery that fascinates me. And then there is the only vertical image in the series, the one I call Girl Pointing. It’s of a young girl, but now I find it’s hard to say exactly how old she was. As the frame approaches her, she points at it—she has this sort of smile on her face—and you can’t tell whether she is smiling at you or with you. You don’t know what she’s actually feeling. I can never settle on a feeling for her. (….)