Lorraine O’Grady: Art is . . .
Alexander Gray Associates presents four groups of selected prints from Lorraine O’Grady’s Art Is…. Each group conveys different aspects of O’Grady’s celebrated 1983 performance, which took place during Harlem’s African-American Day Parade.
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Lorraine O’Grady’s Art Is … (1983/2009) was a joyful performance in Harlem’s 1983 African-American Day Parade. O’Grady created the work as a rebuttal to an acquaintance’s assertion that “avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with Black people.” Putting avant-garde art into the largest Black space she could think of—the million-plus viewers of the parade—she sought to prove her friend wrong.
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 her performance was undertaken in a spirit of elation which carried over on the day. Reflecting on the experience in a 2015 interview with then Assistant Curator Amanda Hunt at The Studio Museum in Harlem, O’Grady explained, “I didn’t live in Harlem … I did not know how this piece was going to work. … It could have been something or it could have been nothing, and I had no idea which, so it was scary for me. But then when I heard people calling the photographers over to them, it was like ‘Wow!’ … You can see how the people on the parade route liked being in photographs, and you can see how these performers liked framing them for the photos. It was wonderful, just wonderful.”
Although O’Grady had received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to make Art Is …, she decided not to broadcast it to the art world. She wanted to it to be a pure gesture, she told her friends, in the style of Duchamp (whose work she had been teaching at the School of Visual Arts for several years). Writing about Art is … more than two decades later, she recalled, “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.”
As the nine by fifteen foot antique-styled gold frame mounted on a float moved slowly up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, framing everything it passed as art, O’Grady knew she had resoundingly proved her acquaintance wrong. She watched the fifteen young actors and dancers dressed in white frame 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!” She would later conclude, “[Art Is …] was to be about art, not about the art world … rather than an invasion, it was more a crashing of the party.”
Lorraine O’Grady’s work has been the subject of numerous one-person exhibitions. The Brooklyn Museum is organizing a retrospective of her work, Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And, slated to open in the spring of 2021. Other solo shows include Family Gained, Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, MA (2018); Lorraine O’Grady: Initial Recognition, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Monastery de Santa María de las Cuevas, Seville, Spain (2016); and Lorraine O’Grady: When Margins Become Centers, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (2015). Her work has been included in countless group exhibitions, including Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom (2017), traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American, Bentonville, AK (2018), Brooklyn Museum, NY (2018), The Broad, Los Angeles, CA (2019), de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA (2019), and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (2020); and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965—85, Brooklyn Museum, NY (2017), traveled to California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2017), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY (2018), and Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston, MA (2018). Her work is represented in innumerable public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, MA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. In addition to her work as a visual artist, she has also made innovative contributions to cultural criticism with her writings. A book of her collected writings, Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space, published by Duke University Press, will be released in 2020.