Art Is. . ., a joyful performance in Harlem's African-American Day Parade, September 1983, was, from the point of view of the work's connection with its audience, O'Grady's most immediately successful piece. It's impetus had been to answer the challenge of a non-artist acquaintance that "avant-garde art doesn't have anything to do with black people." O'Grady's response was to put avant-garde art into the largest black space she could think of, the million-plus viewers of the parade, to prove her friend wrong. It was a risk, since there was no guarantee the move would actually work. As a black Boston Brahman cum Greenwich Village bohemian, with roots in West Indian carnival, for O'Grady the Harlem marching-band parade was alien territory. But the performance was undertaken in a spirit of elation which carried over on the day. Unlike the disappointment she'd felt with Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and The Black and White Show, this piece was to be about art, not about the art world. . . rather than an invasion, it was more a crashing of the party.
Although she had received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to do the piece, she decided not to broadcast it to the art world. She wanted to it to be a pure gesture, she told friends, in the style of Duchamps (whose work she had been teaching at SVA for several years). But this may also have been insulation against further frustration, a way to strengthen the sense of freedom.
The 9 x 15 ft. antique-styled gold frame mounted on the gold-skirted float moved slowly up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, framing everything it passed as art, and the 15 young actors and dancers dressed in white framed viewers with empty gold picture frames to shouts of "Frame me, make me art!" and "That's right, that's what art is, WE're the art!" O'Grady's decision was affirmed. With her mother Lena now in the later stages of Alzheimer's, she would withdraw from the art world and not make art for the next five years
Unpublished email exchange, 1998The most comprehensive and focused interview of O’Grady to date, this Q & A by a Duke University doctoral candidate benefited from the slowness of the email format, the African American feminist scholar’s deep familiarity with O’Grady’s work, and their personal friendship.
by Lorraine O’Grady and Moira Roth, unpublished, 2007
During an e-mail exchange in which they were sharing ideas and work, O’Grady sent Roth a copy of Lucy Lippard’s review of Art Is. . . . Roth’s questions prompted O’Grady to elaborate on the making and meaning of the performance.
. . . .
I’m not surprised when people don’t know much about Art Is. . . I did it during my “Duchamp” years. At the time, I was teaching the Dadas and the Futurists at SVA and thinking of myself as a purist. Because the piece wasn’t addressed to the art world, I didn’t advertise it. I’ve changed a lot since then! The answers to your questions are fairly intertwined.
When I did the piece I was living in the West Village, in the same building I’d been living since arriving in New York via Chicago in ‘72. . . . I’m definitely a “downtown” type and had dreamt of being in the Village since I was 10 years old. When I was a teenager in the late 40s growing up in Boston, I would devour magazines with pictures of girls in long black skirts, black turtlenecks and black berets, drinking expresso and puffing on cigarettes in 4th Street cafes.
By late 1982, I’d been “out” as an artist for more than two years and had been invited by the Heresies collective, not to join the mother collective but to work on issue #13 of their journal, the one that was named "Racism Is the Issue." The “issue” collective was a mixed group of artists and non-artists that included Ana Mendieta, Cindy Carr, Carole Gregory, Lucy and many others. It was a fractious group. One of the women in it was a black social worker whose name I don’t recall. I only remember that one evening at a meeting she said to me scathingly: "Avant-garde art doesn't have anything to do with black people!" I didn’t know how to answer her, but I wanted to prove she was wrong.
Her comment stayed with me. But where would I find the “black people” to answer her? Perhaps because I am West Indian and a great believer in Carnival, the idea of putting avant-garde art into a parade came to me. But I knew instinctively that I couldn’t put it into the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. There was so much real art in that parade it would drown out the avant-garde! So I decided on the African American Day Parade in Harlem, which was comparatively tame and commercial — you know, ooompa-ooompa marching bands and beer company adverts. My first idea was to mount several pieces on a parade float and just march it up 7th Avenue. But when I went to rent a flatbed from the company in New Jersey that supplies them, the owner told me: "You know, you have a maximum of three minutes, from the time a float comes into view on the horizon, stops-and-starts, then is out of sight at the other end." That shook me. So I switched, from putting art into the parade to trying to create an art experience for the viewers. I asked the artists George Mingo and Richard DeGussi to help me. They built a 9 x 15 foot antique-styled, empty gold frame on the flatbed, which we covered with a gold metallic-paper skirt that had "Art Is. . . " in big, black letters on both sides. Then I put an ad in Billboard and hired 15 gorgeous young black actors and dancers, male and female, dressed them in white, and gave them gold picture frames of various styles and told them to frame viewers along the parade route. They did this while hopping on and off the parade float, according to how fast it was moving or whether it was stalled.
The piece was done in 1983, with a grant from the NY State Council on the Arts, but as I said, it was done during my "Duchamp" years. Hahaha. I told the people at Just Above Midtown, the black avant-garde gallery I showed with, and the women in the Heresies racism collective knew about it, but almost noone else. The only person I gave slides to was Lucy Lippard, who was in both the Heresies mother and issue collectives and wrote about the piece five years later in Z. Lucy later printed two images in her book Mixed Blessings. But nothing else happened with that piece. I was shocked when, a few years ago, Johanna Drucker asked me for slides for a book she was writing. I thought noone had noticed.
It’s funny. The organizers of the parade were totally mystified by me and by the performance. The announcer made fun of the float as it passed the reviewing stand: "They tell me this is art, but you know the Studio Museum? I don't understand that stuff."
But the people on the parade route got it. Everywhere there were shouts of: "That's right. That's what art is. WE're the art!" And, "Frame ME, make ME art!" It was amazing.Lorraine
by Lucy Lippard. 1988
Highlighted box review, taking a retrospective look at O’Grady’s 1983 performance Art Is . . .. In “Sniper’s Nest,” Z Magazine, July-August 1988, p 102
One of the most effectively Janus-faced artworks of the last few years was Lorraine O’Grady’s float for the Afro-American Parade in Harlem. The title, “Art Is…” was emblazoned on the side of a huge, ornate, gold frame that rode on a float. The artist and a group of other women, dressed in white, hopped on and off the float as the parade progressed and held up smaller gold frames to children, cops, and other onlookers, making portraits of the local audience as the big frame made landscapes of the passing local environment.
The direct message of course was: Art is what you make it; Harlem and black people are as worthy as any other subjects for Art. On a more complex level, O’Grady was commenting on the artist as manipulator and reflector, and the participatory role of exchange in culturally democratic art. The piece was about “framing and being framed,” to borrow a phrase from corporate critic Hans Haacke. The initially simple idea opens up the field of art to include what has until now been peripheral vision, rarely projected on the centralized screens of galleries and museums.
O’Grady (who is black and has done performance pieces in the persona of Mademoiselle Black Bourgeoise) thus raises a layered set of questions about representation in high art. These questions were posed in the community and radiated to current analyses of stereotypes and representational exclusions in the mass and other media. The gold frame raises another set of questions about class, context, and autonomy. When photographically documented, the piece shows black women choosing their subjects, as well as a mutual exchange or collaboration, in which the artist or framers and their found subjects mutually determine the focus on the art, thus illustrating a process of self-determination sparked by an art process.The piece can also translate effectively from its primary audience, Harlem residents, to a secondary one, the art world. The direct, intimate, photobooth process taking place within the parade as public drama allows the art to be both entertaining and affirming. The indirect process by which little recoding is needed for use in the “art world” opens up layers of meaning about the history of modernism and its constant search for the new, the history of collage and performance and site-specific art as potentially populist forms, and the one-liner as potential paragraph. And, finally, O’Grady’s piece scrutinizes the multiple meanings of the frame itself—physical (gold and theoretical (ways of seeing).
New York in Review
A review of O’Grady’s first solo exhibit at INTAR Gallery, NYC, that
focuses on her work in performance. Selected from Gretchen Faust’s
column, "New York in Review," ARTS Magazine, vol 65, no 8, April 1991, p 98.
It is always a little frustrating to write reviews in a short format, as it only allows one to touch on issues and highlight aspects of the work discussed. Though valuable, every once and awhile I come across a show that really demands more time and space consideration. The first solo show of Lorraine O’Grady’s photomontages (INTAR, January 21–February 22) is just such a show. O’Grady couples her wide-angle art awareness with a keen sociopolitical consciousness. The gallery is divided into four sections; each has a different “theme” relative to her two overall queries: What should we do? countered by What is there time for? As stated in the press release, the four rooms reflect, in order: 1) cultural criticism, 2) autobiography, 3) black female reclamation, and 4) work in and for the community. Each of the rooms contains photomontages exploring, through manipulated imagery, the assigned theme. Cultural criticism includes documentation of O’Grady’s best known and most acclaimed performance work, Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire. In this performance, O’Grady takes on an assumed and striking character, who dresses in a formal gown and cape fashioned from literally hundreds of white gloves. It is in this guise that O’Grady has appeared, unannounced and uninvited, at art openings as a virtual apparition/voice of conscience that “denounces Black artists’ political passivity in the face of curatorial and critical apartheid” and attacks “Black aesthetic timidity” (as stated in Judith Wilson’s catalogue essay, entitled Lorraine O’Grady: Critical Interventions). The second room explores autobiography and includes photographs documenting a metaphorical coming-of-age ritual/performance entitled Rivers: First Draft, involving several multi-racial players, which took place in Central Park in 1982. A compare-and-contrast collage that pairs images of the artist’s sister with those of Nefertiti is featured in the third room, and the fourth focuses on the documentation of a collaborative project, including the artists George Mingo and Richard DeGussi, which consisted of a large float, part of the 1983 Afro-American Day parade in Harlem. The float, Art is. . ., sported open gilt frames that were held out over the crowds, thus implying that anything caught within their boundaries was deemed art. In this piece O’Grady engages the relationship between contextualization and content in a joyous event, available and interesting to all. It is this ability to be direct and effective on a level that is both internally complex and essentially based in realism that distinguishes this work by an artist out on the bridge that seems to span the gap between art and life.
Gretchen FaustApril 1991
Judith Wilson, 1991Catalogue essay written for O’Grady’s first gallery solo exhibition, “Lorraine O’Grady,” INTAR Gallery, 420 W 42nd Street, New York City, January 21 – February 22, 1991.
by Massimiliano Gioni, with Anny Shaw, 5-6 December, 2009A one-paragraph notice with photo in The Art Newspaper, the publication that carries the most clout at the fair. Points to ways in which O’Grady’s piece questions market values.
by JOHANNA DRUCKER. 2005
Discussion of O’Grady’s performance ART IS. . . in a book examining “complicit art.” Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. pp. 82-84, 87-88.
The advent of conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s signals the realization that the only valid reinvention of artistic practice had to be grounded in idea rather than production. With no other artistic territory left to occupy, no other identity through which it can achieve viability, fine art retreats to this artistic high ground as the last, and most potent, position it can hold.
What might this mean in relation to a specific work? In an innocent and somewhat anomalous way, Lorraine O’Grady’s Art Is engages these rhetorical issues though a literal play of framing devices (fig. 4). A photograph records a 1985 [sic] enactment of this piece. It shows children on a Harlem street beaming out from an ornate frame. Their hands clutch its outside edges, supporting the decorative boundaries that enclose their radiant expressions. Their bodies extend beyond—into the space of the street. They are compellingly engaged in the performance of the piece. Art Is escapes the usual art world attempt at self-congratulatory “political” rhetoric and succeeds as a continually challenging, dynamic work. The photograph of the performance of Art Is is at once the record of a piece and a piece in itself. Both are focused on and question the dependency between visual art’s literal and referential borders as a means of its self-definition. This act of bordering/defining as an act of framing has several implications for the notion of the art object’s status as an entity that is discrete, yet permeable, and as an arena of activity.
Art Is calls many assumptions into question in its structure as well as its thematics. Making use of formal means—a simple frame—it manages to undo the strictures of formalist autonomy. The very act of “appropriating” that produces the work necessarily goes beyond the boundaries of the already-produced image. The frame is a device for dividing the visual field while insisting on its relation to a co-extensive lived environment. O’Grady’s work made use of the simplest gesture of framing as a way of un-framing the work of art,, of opening its bounded domain into a dialogue with the world as the source and site of productive meaning. The frames in the piece were beautiful, elegant, gold, gaudy, elaborate, and fantastical. They suggested high art and grand traditions of culture. As the float on which they were traveling moved through the streets of New York City, they were handed down into the crowd. The apparent “emptiness” of this frame was contradicted by the impossibility of there ever being a void in that space. This frame worked actively and passively. The moments at which it was in transit, between one group and another of eager children, demonstrated the continuity of the frame function. This work was not antiart in any sense. Quite the contrary, it was art as action, unleashed from moribund constraints—an ephemeral and yet documented gesture of transformation acting on a broad, unedited social field in a purely rhetorical way. Once the activity was photographed, the framing effect was in turn framed again, by the photographic image, which abruptly cut through the incidental seeming information of the bodies that surrounded the frame, holding it and supporting its enclosing form. The emphatic incidentalness of the frame’s capacity to function to delimit a visual—and thus an aesthetic—field defied the idea that there was any material with an a priori claim on a place within the frame. . . .
If we think about the implications of O’Grady’s piece, we see that the apparent dilemma of art’s identity after the 1960s can be put aside. The practice of fine art reassumes coherence on conceptual and rhetorical grounds. A permissive and open-ended pluralist diversity produces a new unity of work in dialogue with, rather than opposition to, popular culture and lived culture of all kinds. Ours is a messy condition. O’Grady’s piece would hardly satisfy the aesthetic strictures of a latent modernist or a critical postmodernist. Its pluralistic gesture, engaged and participatory, challenges the very elitist view of the esoteric aestheticist.Neither does O’Grady’s work announce a final, terminal condition for fine art. Even as it created a joyously unbounded example of art as idea enacting a lived performance of aesthetics through a framing gesture, alive and exuberant, it kept the dour pronouncements of ends and closures at bay. The apparent unity of modernism as read through the academic narrative of formal and avant-garde practices repressed a multitude of diverse practices under its too-conspicuous surface coherence. Conversely, the apparent pluralism of contemporary art conceals a profound unity—that of contingent, sometimes affirmative, frequently nuanced, reflective engagement that makes sense within a historical frame as well as a philosophical one....
by Nick Mauss, 2009Mauss’s article for Artforum is, with Wilson’s INTAR catalogue essay, one of the most extended and authoritative pieces on O’Grady’s oeuvre to date. It was one-half of a two-article feature that also included O’Grady’s artist portfolio for The Black and White Show.
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.