other media 1983
The Black and White Show, an exhibition curated by O'Grady at the black-owned Kenkeleba Gallery on East 2nd Street, NYC, April 22 - May 22, 1983, was a conceptual art piece employing other artists' work to make its point. The exhibit returned to O'Grady's concerns in the Mlle Bourgeoise Noire performance at the New Museum of Contemporary Art a year and a half previously. Little had changed in the New York art world; it remained obdurately segregated. But now, rather than the "joyous anger" of the earlier performance, the new work attempted an appeal to reason. The title was direct. O'Grady invited 28 artists, 14 of whom were black and 14 white, to contribute work in black and white. She wanted equality to clearly emerge.
Though color had been eliminated as a differential element in the work, styles varied widely -- from expressionist painting to conceptual text and installation. O'Grady's insistence on black-and-white work meant some artists were represented by untypical work. In some instances, work was modified. "Funk Lessons," a text piece by Adrian Piper, had been in black and gold, but Piper changed it to comply with the show's strictures. In other cases, artists were inspired to create new work, as in sculptor Randy Williams's installation on the "For Whites Only" and "For Colored Only" toilets of his childhood in the pre-Civil Rights south. One work specifically requested by O'Grady, Toxic Junkie, a text-mural by artist John Fekner on the street outside the gallery which functioned as a 24-hour drug supermarket, became the signature image of the burgeoning East Village art scene.
But despite the show's obvious quality -- Leon Golub said it was better than the Whitney Biennial that year -- it was not reviewed by any of the art magazines and received only a 3-line notice in the "East Village Eye," the local newspaper. In the end, its "appeal to reason" had as little effect as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire's "joyous anger." The art world's complexion was the same.
© Artforum International Magazine Inc. 1993
O’Grady’s column on the occasion of Basquiat’s first retrospective, at the Whitney Museum, was the first to examine Basquiat’s relation to the black art world. It discusses her personal relationship to Jean-Michel and analyzes the mainstream art world’s “primitivist” responses to his work.
. . . . Under the compulsion to find hegemonic origins for him, such as Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly, analysis is being strangled. The debate needs air. If Basquiat did copy the painters so often mentioned, why them? What echoes made their styles appropriable to the experience of a late-20th-century black man? And has the black painter Raymond Saunders, whose work resonates with Basquiat's, heard them as well? Quotation in isolation is hardly interesting. Everybody quotes--vide Picasso.
Basquiat's biography is fascinating, but discussion of it is so uncomprehending that not even his legend has room to breathe. His romantic notion of the jazz life was a quarter-century out of date. Forget his internal resources--what does it mean that he didn't have access to the kind of information that might have saved him? Would knowing the lessons of Bob Thompson, the '60s black painter with eery parallels to him, have helped him move on? One effect of Basquiat's isolation is not speculation: the thinnest aspect of his art was not lack of training, which is irrelevant, but his separation from the audience that could have enabled and challenged him.
When I saw Jean-Michel's pieces in Annina Nosei's 1981 group show, I was stunned. I knew what I was looking at; and what I didn't know, I sensed. I never had to translate Jean-Michel, perhaps because I too came from a Caribbean-American family of a certain class--the dysfunctional kind, where bourgeois proprieties are viciously enforced and the paternal role model of choice is Kaiser Wilhelm. It was the sort of background that in the first generation of rebellious adolescents, kids no longer Caribbean and not yet American, faced with the inability of whites and blacks alike to perceive their cultural difference but convinced they were smarter than both combined, often produced a style of in-your-face arrogance and suicidal honesty. At their best, these traits sometimes ascended from mere attitude to the subversive and revolutionary.
It was the next-to-last day of the show, a Friday. Out on the street, I made calls from a pay phone. To Linda Bryant, founder of Just Above Midtown, the black not-for-profit where I showed with David Hammons, Fred Wilson, and others. I could tell Linda thought I was crazy: Haitian? From Brooklyn? Only 21? It was too weird; she'd catch up with him later. I hadn't even mentioned graffiti. With the artists I spoke to, disbelief hardened further: on Prince Street? When there are guys out here who've been working 30 years?
It took over a year to find a way. The "Black and White Show" I was curating in the spring of '83, at the Kenkeleba Gallery, was to feature black-and-white work by black and white artists. It would star Jean-Michel, not David Hammons: David was already overexposed in the black art world, though he wasn't to be discovered by the white one for another six years. Of course, I didn't know if Jean-Michel would agree.
He had split with Nosei and was without a gallery. I'd heard the stories about exploitation (the studio in her basement, etc.), but these were less frightening to me than a white friend's tale of late-night calls from a Jean-Michel in despair after white patrons had physically recoiled from him. The simplest handshake was a landmine. I knew the art world was about to eat him up and before it did, I hoped to connect him to black artists who, picked up in the '60s and then dropped, could give him perspective on its mores in a way his graffiti friends could not. I also wanted to connect them to his hunger, his lack of fear. There were some who had stopped reading art magazines because they knew they would not see themselves there.
Keith Haring, a former student of mine, introduced us. I think Jean-Michel agreed to be in the show both because of Keith and because I'd sent him documentation of my performance persona, Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, and he'd thought she was great. But when I talked to him about the black art world, he was perplexed; he'd never heard of it. If he came to the opening, he asked, could he meet Amiri Baraka? I thought it could be arranged. He had confirmed that, like others, we learn about ourselves from white media.
In anticipation of the pieces he said he would make for me, I visited his loft on Crosby Street several times. We talked about art, performance, and the places he'd been, especially Rome, and about the need to hold on to his best work, and as we talked, he sat in the middle of a canvas writing with oilstick. "I'm not making paintings," he said, "I'm making tablets." I ransacked my library for books for him. His line, the way he arrayed figures in space, made me settle on Burchard Brentjes' African Rock Art and, for an overview, Prehistoric Art, by P.M. Grand. But there was an aura in the loft that I'd identified as cocaine paranoia (later I heard the heroin started that summer). I understood my pieces were not forthcoming. Someone told me Basquiat had already mounted his campaign on Mary Boone, that exhibiting in the East Village would not be cool. I replaced him in the show with Richard Hambleton, whose black, spray-painted figures exacerbated urban fear.
"The Black and White Show" came either too late or too soon. The press release spoke of "black-and-white art for a black-and-white time," "a time when cadmium red costs $32 a quart wholesale"--which shows how out of it I was. This was the '80s; only black people were getting poorer, only black artists seemed to worry about the price of paint. And the white art media remained the same. For all my exertions, the show got a three-line notice in the East Village Eye and a review in the Woodstock Times. I had to admit, there were things Jean-Michel knew more about than I.
For Basquiat, of course, it was just another no-show. He couldn't realize a chance had been lost. Except for pieces in "Since the Harlem Renaissance" at Bucknell University in 1984, his work was not shown in an African-American context while he lived; nor did it have to be. Whatever the degree of exploitation, he had been validated by the white gallery system, and in 1983 was included in a Whitney Biennial for which none of Just Above Midtown's artists received studio visits....
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.
© Lorraine O’Grady 2009In this unpublished email exchange, O’Grady used the margin comments of her Artforum editor on “The Black and White Show” in part to provide background clarification on the situation of race in the 1980s art world and to explore issues she had chosen not to discuss in the portfolio article.
© Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc. 1996
In-depth interview done for the excellent Artist and Influence series produced by Camille Billops and James Hatch for their archive of African American visual and theatre arts.
. . . . I don't think I answered your earlier question, about the parade piece. All of my performance was still in the mode of art criticism, and putting that float in the parade was a way of saying that art could be made relevant to "the community."
Did people see it that way? Did anyone notice your parade piece?
Besides the people on the parade route? No. I did it very puristically and didn't advertise it to the art world. As you can see, I've changed that stance rather dramatically (laughs). Just before the parade piece, I curated my show at Kenkeleba Gallery, the "Black and White Show," because I wanted to say something about the position of black people in the art world. Nobody was ready to hear that they were equal. I thought that if you put fourteen black artists and fourteen white artists in the same place, all with work in black and white, you would get the point that they were equal.
What was the response?
There was no response. The comment that I remember the most was from Leon Golub (whose wife, Nancy Spero, was in the show), that it was better than the Whitney Biennial that year. That was the only critical response that it got outside the family, except for a three-line notice in the East Village Eye.
What year was this?1983. It was too soon. It was like a lot of other things that I did; it was too soon. That was my biggest problem in the art world. I got pretty discouraged after the "Black and White Show," wondering about the lack of reception to my ideas. Coincidentally, my mother got Alzheimer's, so I had to spend a lot of time running back and forth between New York and Boston, and I just withdrew....
Lorraine O’Grady’s posts
O’Grady’s replies to Berger’s questions, both reproduced here, were extensive. The conference, with 30 posters and hosted on the Georgia O’Keefe Museum website, provided an opportune moment to re-think her 80s work in its larger historical context.
. . . 6-7 November: Geography, Institutions & Markets
In this session, I would like us to examine the issues of
“Geography, Institutions, and Markets.” . . . . How and why did former
industrial or residential areas, like Soho and the East Village, emerge
as art centers? . . . . What did the East Village scene mean for
American art and culture in the 1980s? . . . . And what of the issues
of gentrification, “alternative spaces,” and globalism: what cultural
forces and changes did they represent in the 1980s and what is their
legacy today? . . . .
Lorraine O’Grady post:
The starting point. A quote from Catherine [Lord]: “Another note about the 1980s. Silvia’s late 1984 Difference: On Representation and Sexuality as I remember, included no gay or lesbian artists and one non-white artist. In other words, halfway into the decade, it was possible to mount a high profile show on “difference” that ignored differences.” OK, bracket that.
The location. Not just a micro-geography, i.e., the
East Village, but a micro-micro-geography—East 2nd Street between
Avenues B and C. To name this location, I have to adapt the phrase
“Off-Off Broadway.” Kenkeleba Gallery, a black-owned-and-run
not-for-profit, was Off-Off-East Village. [On East 2nd Street] the
phrase “artists make real estate” still seemed an impossible dream. The
East Village that people are discussing here was between 8th and 10th
The background. It’s the end of the ’70s, and I'm teaching at the School of Visual Arts. My teacher’s pet is a mousy boy with limp brown hair, but sweet, named John McLaughlin. He’s been enrolling with me from class to class. When I announce a new course on the Surrealists, he says, "You can’t just do the Surrealists, you've got to do the Dadas, I like their design." That means doing the Futurists, too. John helps me plan the course and brings his friends to sit in. There are more kids auditing than taking it. That’s how I meet Keith Haring. A few months later, posters for a new club appear in the halls and stairwells at SVA. I recognize John’s design but it takes a while for the name to sink in: John Sex. I laugh. The skits at Club 57 feel like the Cabaret Voltaire we did in class.
When Keith drops by to say he’s curating the first-ever graffiti show above the Mudd Club, I laugh again. These kids’ ambitions know no bounds. But the opening has an ineffable sadness. The white woman artist I am with sighs enviously at the 18-year-old Latinas who've come with the Uptown graffiti kids. Having this much life at an art world event feels weird. I'm convinced John and Keith have a future (who could predict how short it will be with AIDS?), and maybe Fab Five Freddy, but, I say, these clueless Latino graffiti kids will be disposed of shortly, that’s the way it is. She doesn’t believe me, so I drop it.
A quote, from Dan Cameron. “Something that many members of the art community continue to downplay about the graffiti movement (I suspect because it too easily explains why the artists themselves were so rapidly seduced and abandoned by the establishment) is that it was by far the most racially integrated art movement New York has ever seen.”
The main event. A few years later (it’s 1983), I'm out there “collapsing boundaries," as I learn to call it later. Then, the only time I try to figure out what I'm doing is when I apply for a grant. The rest of the time, I'm bobbing and weaving, advancing the argument with the means at hand. When Joe Overstreet and Corinne Jennings, the owners of Kenkeleba, have an unexpected opening in their schedule, it’s a chance to write by curating a show. The location seems a plus, the East Village is happening and, who knows, it could spill over by a few blocks. The neighborhood would be a stretch for the white folks, of course—East 2nd between B and C is still the biggest drug supermarket in Manhattan, with competing hawkers shouting “Toilet” and “3-5-7” around the clock. But an even bigger stretch is my idea for the show: 14 black artists and 14 white artists doing work in black and white. A bit naive, and even worse is the fact that it's still needed. I start The Black and White Show with a call to Keith, asking him to introduce me to Basquiat. With the two of them, I can get something going.
Now un-bracket that quote from Catherine. “Silvia’s late 1984 Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, as I remember, included no gay or lesbian artists and one non-white artist. In other words, halfway into the decade, it was possible to mount a high profile show on “difference” that ignored “differences." And in the ’80s, it was also possible to mount a show dealing with difference that gets more than ignored, that achieves the timeworn fate of being co-opted. [The Black and White Show’s signature image, commissioned by me — John Fekner’s Toxic Junkie — becomes the lead image of Art in America’s Summer ’84 Special Report on the East Village, with no mention in the feature’s 30 pages of either the show, the gallery, or me]....
by Lorraine O’Grady, 2009The artist portfolio that accompanied a survey article on O’Grady’s work by Nick Mauss in a two-article Artforum cover spread combined impressionistic text on her experience curating “The Black and White Show,” 1983, with historically analytic captions for works from the show.
by JUDITH WILSON. 1991
Catalogue 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.
Cultural Criticism. . . .
Returning to a kind of cultural criticism, O’Grady temporarily shed her role as an artist to don that of curator, organizing “The Black and White Show,” which opened at the Kenkeleba Gallery in the East Village in April 1983. A show of works in black and white by 28 Black and White artists, the participants included established figures like Ed Clark, Adrian Piper and Nancy Spero, as well as such relative newcomers as Keith Haring, Stephen Lack and Coreen Simpson. On her resume, O’Grady lists “The Black and White Show” as “a Mlle Bourgeoise Noire event” — a designation that seems to signal the artist operating in her critical mode. Indeed, it was her annoyance at Black artists’ exclusion from or underrepresentation in most shows of the period that led her to concoct the exhibition.
Typically, with the lone exception of a brief notice in the East Village Eye, the show was ignored by the art press. Particularly galling was Art in America’s failure to mention either the show or its location, the Black-owned and operated Kenkeleba Gallery — one of the East Village’s pioneer alternative spaces —, in a 28-page “Report from the East Village” that opened with a photograph of John Fekner’s Toxic Junkie mural. As an unpublished letter from O’Grady to the magazine’s editor pointed out, the mural had been created, at her request, for the show as a means of “connecting the art inside the gallery with what was happening on the street.”....
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.