My 1980s, Art Journal 2012

“This Will Have Been: My 1980s.” Art Journal 71, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 6-17.

© Lorraine O’Grady, 2012

Based on her lecture in conjunction with the exhibit This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s, the article puts several early works in historical context and explains O’Grady’s reverse trajectory from “post-black” to “black.”

First, I must thank Helen Molesworth for curating such a brilliant and brave show and for allowing me to be part of it. This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s is an unusual exhibition. It attempts to deal historically with a period that has not yet disappeared, one that is still vexed in present memory. Its admirable qualities leap out at once—a refusal of the curatorial temptation to evaluate and recategorize, its willingness to let the period “live free,” and Molesworth’s exemplary admission of her own biases in shaping it.

I won’t be responding to the show on the walls, but more to the catalogue—whose richness I can’t recommend highly enough—and to what a quiet reading of it in New York made me think and feel.

Molesworth’s own extraordinary essay helped me get to a place it would have taken me years to reach otherwise. I am especially grateful to the invitation extended in its final paragraph to others’ alternate visions of the period, its recognition that even those of us with similar goals can never be fully in synch but that, if we can express our differences “without losing time,” we may get there in the end.

None of the differences between my perception of the 1980s and Molesworth’s should be taken as a criticism of This Will Have Been, of course. If I saw the 1980s differently than Molesworth—and I did—my responses are more an attitudinal selection, my differences a case of the glass half-empty and half-full.

Molesworth sees the 1980s as a moment of nascent ideas, as the incubator of an expanded “understanding of identity and subjectivity” which would arrive more fully in the 1990s—in effect, as the beginning of the postmodernist period.

On the other hand, I see the 1980s as the last gasp of modernism, a modernism newly under pressure, un-self-confident, making a desperate last effort to control the narrative.

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