JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition of collages, photographs, videos, and supporting ephemera, hung primarily in a series of galleries on the fourth floor, but also in various other locations around the museum. The exhibition was curated by Catherine Morris and Aruna D’Souza, with Jenée-Daria Strand. A catalog has been published to accompany the exhibition (here).
The following works are included in the exhibition, organized by location in the museum:
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, 4th Floor
- 48 digital chromogenic prints from Kodachrome 35mm slides, 1982/2015
- 2 vitrines: artist statement, course description, readings, performance program, playlist, manuscript pages
- 3 vitrines: cut newspaper collages, 1977
- 14 gelatin silver prints, 1980-1983/2009
- vitrine: contact sheets, calling card, letter, artist notes
- 1 costume made from 180 pairs of white gloves, 1980
- 40 chromogenic prints, 1983/2009
- 2 vitrines: notes, proposal, slides, notebook pages, statement, letter
- 4 letterpress on Japanese paper diptychs, 1977/2017
- 3 Artforum spreads, 2009
- vitrine: announcement card, press release, price list, letters
- 6 letterpress on Japanese paper diptychs, 1977/2017; 1 single panel letterpress on Japanese paper, 1977/2017
- 2 vitrines: catalog, memo, notebook, contact sheet, notes, press release, letters
- 2 archival pigment print diptych, 1991/2019
- 3 archival pigment prints, 1991/2019
Elevator Lobby, 4th Floor
- 6 toner ink on adhesive label paper, 1977
Luce Center for American Art, 5th Floor
- 1 single channel video, black and white, sound, 18:04, 2010/2011
Beaux-Arts Court, 3rd Floor
- 6 Fujiflex prints, 2020
- vitrine: studies, project descriptions, book lists
Egyptian Galleries, 3rd Floor
- 16 Cibachrome print diptychs, 1980/1994
Cafe Lobby, 1st Floor
- 1 toner ink on adhesive label paper, 1977 (displayed on 10 windows)
(Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: While photography has been an important part of Lorraine O’ Grady’s artistic practice since the very beginning of her career, to label her a photographer would be an oversimplification of the facts. She is better thought of as a conceptual artist, or a performance/installation artist (who uses photography to document her efforts), or even a feminist artist, if we want to step back further from medium as a defining characteristic. What is clear is that across her four decades of art making, she has been first and foremost a sophisticated and incisive thinker, particularly about race and gender, who has then employed a range of different mediums to wrestle with facets of Blackness and her own place in the world as a Black woman.
Given O’Grady’s active conceptual engagement with various artistic histories, this retrospective takes the unusual step of spreading her works throughout the museum – roughly half are clustered on the fourth floor, but a number of projects are placed in locations that leverage the potential to engage with the encyclopedic collections already on view nearby. This gives this show a bit of a treasure hunt feel, with O’Grady’s works alternately tucked into the American, European, and Egyptian art displays, as well as in several lobbies and transit hallways. There is no map, only a list of locations, so finding them all takes some patience and initiative.
Photographically, O’Grady’s 1980 Miscegenated Family Album is the logical starting point. Inspired by a trip to Egypt and taking its first form as a live performance, the sixteen diptychs that make up the work pair appropriated archival images of stone statues/reliefs of Queen Nefertiti and her family with family album pictures and snapshots of O’Grady’s sister Devonia and her family. O’Grady finds visual parallels at every turn – between the faces of Nefertiti and Devonia at various ages, between their respective daughters, and between the women at similar rituals and making like gestures. The pairings smartly collapse time, and make obvious the possible mixed-race connections and echoes across the centuries. And placed inside the confines of the Egyptian galleries at the museum, the diptychs create additional layers of sharp dissonance with how the artifacts on display were sourced and the cultural contexts within which they have typically been interpreted.
O’Grady’s 1991 series of photomontages (Body is the Ground of My Experience) push her back behind the camera, leveraging the compositional techniques of the Surrealists but centering them in her experience as a Black woman of Caribbean descent. Several of the works use sinuous black bodies as a clever landscape element, the dark textured skin photographed in ways that make it look like undulating hills. In “The Fir-Palm”, O’Grady offers her hybrid life story as the unlikely combination of two trees rising from a woman’s navel, the evergreen grafted on to the top of the palm trunk and curving out from the “land” below. In “Lilith Sends Out Destroyers”, a thick bunch of warships emerges from the dark hair of the mythological woman’s crotch, making the female body a literal battleground. And in “The Strange Taxi: From Africa to Jamaica to Boston in 200 Years”, a black body becomes the land on which a rolling New England-style brick house travels, with various female ancestors (mother, aunts) riding along on top. In these and other constructed images, O’Grady both probes her own identity and uses it as raw material for broader studies of the psychological tensions and conflicts that surround the Black female body.
Many more of O’Grady’s best known and most influential projects start with performance (and the various personas the artist takes on in those events), with photography providing a supporting documentary role. In the early 1980s, O’Grady’s famous alter ego Mlle Bourgeoise Noire invaded receptions at the Just Above Midtown (JAM) Gallery and the New Museum, and photographs capture her dressed in a tiara and gown made of white gloves crashing the parties, interacting with guests, whipping herself with a cat-o-nine-tails, and shouting poetry that protested racial segregation in the art world and exhorted Black artists to take more risks.
Mlle Bourgeoise Noire also made an appearance at the Afro-American Day Parade in Harlem in 1983, as part of O’Grady’s performance “Art Is…”. O’Grady built a massive 9×15 foot gilt frame, placed it on a flatbed trailer float, and had it pulled along the parade route, flanked by dancers with smaller gilt frames that were used to interact with the crowd. As seen in the grid of photographs here, the results were exuberant, with both the city and its residents feeling the contagious joy of participating in redefining what art could include. Both conceptually (as critique) and more casually (as inclusive engagement), her framing gesture has continued to resonate with both bite and warmth, even decades later.
Still other performances and persona projects have similarly been photographed, allowing us to see the original events and watch the gestation of O’Grady’s characters. “Rivers, First Draft, or The Woman in Red” is an elaborately staged site-specific performance that took place in Central Park in 1982. In it, O’Grady is divided into three selves (young girl, teenager, and adult woman) who navigate a series of encounters with the Woman in White (her impassive, coconut shredding mother), a Young Man, a group of unwelcoming Black Artists, and bunches of Art Snobs and Debauchees, who alternately comment on the proceedings via bullhorns and dance around distracting from the action. In traversing a small river, the three versions of herself ultimately steady themselves and re-merge, shaping a personal identity, regardless of the indifference of the Woman in White. The photographs of the events are dream-like, each small moment linked into a flowing narrative chain.
O’Grady’s newest persona is to be found amidst the Rodin sculptures in the museum’s European art galleries. Photographed dressed in a full suit of shiny armor, with a palm tree emerging from the top of her helmet, she once again presents herself as a hybrid of competing forces. In melding elements of European and Caribbean folklore, the character jousts and parries, and later interacts with courtiers and a toy horse, bringing Blackness and contradiction into stories (and museum galleries) that were never as simple as they seemed.
While photographs, and one well placed video work wedged between two paintings in the American wing, do much of the visual lifting in this retrospective, words, texts and written materials fill the galleries, in ways far richer and more intellectual than in most shows. Collages of newspaper cutout poems decorate various hallways in the museum, and the original works are shown in vitrines, and then as diptychs, almost like a connecting refrain that repeats throughout the exhibit. The vitrines that dot the galleries are filled with O’Grady’s materials, showing her to be a systematic, thorough, and careful thinker, her conceptual ideas presented in impressive layers of densely considered statements, notes, and readings. These materials are so pervasive they re-calibrate our understanding of O’Grady and her artistic process, tilting her further toward the power of conceptual frameworks and structures, and slightly away from their manifestation as visual artworks. It’s the ideas that matter here, and less so the photographs that document them.
So while many of the photographs here can best be read as evidence and there is less de novo photography than I might have expected, O’Grady still comes out from this retrospective as an underappreciated artistic powerhouse. Her brilliance as an idea generator will be lost on those who gloss over the vitrines, but having spent time with my own nose to the glass here, there is more depth and richness to process in those notes and statements than many artists ever reveal. Pulling her more toward conceptual performance (with photography as a willing enabler) logically slots her in with Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and VALIE EXPORT (among others), which feels like the right set of compatriots. O’Grady’s art can certainly stand with and inform that group, and hopefully this overdue retrospective will help her settle into her rightful place in that dialogue.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. O’Grady is represented by Alexander Gray Associates in New York (here). O’Grady’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.