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PRINT May 2009

THE POEM WILL RESEMBLE YOU: THE ART OF LORRAINE O'GRADY

WHEN LORRAINE O’GRADY would burst into art openings during the early 1980s in the character of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, she sought to bring aesthetic issues to life—and, more specifically, to challenge both the art world’s entrenched (and often overlooked) conservatism and its presumptive avant-gardism. Ever since, O’Grady has forged a multidisciplinary mode of disruption and criticality, working on a broad social stage while hewing to an intensely personal vision. In the May issue, artist NICK MAUSS looks closely at this history that is, he says, “both concussive and elegant”; and O’Grady herself, reflecting on this same history in context, reprises “The Black and White Show,” which she organized as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire in 1983. Conceived as an artwork that deployed curating as medium, the exhibition took place at Kenkeleba House—a gallery in the burned-out precincts of the East Village in New York—and featured twenty-eight artists, of whom half were black, half white. (The precise balance bluntly underscored the absence of such parity elsewhere in art.) In both physical location and critical orientation, the show situated itself outside the ambit of the mainstream art world. Revisiting it now and superimposing present-day reflections on the works she gathered together then, O’Grady offers counterhistory as visual and textual palimpsest. Mauss’s contribution has been reproduced below; as a special online-only component, O’Grady’s article “A Day at the Races,” from the April 1993 issue of Artforum, has also been included. For “A Day at the Races,” click here.

Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, 1980–83. Performance view, New Museum, New York, September 1981. Photo: Coreen Simpson.

I HAVE NEVER SEEN A PERFORMANCE BY LORRAINE O’GRADY. Yet even their documentation communicates a moment in time that was and still is a severe interruption. I can’t claim to fully understand what I’m looking at. The continual internal refraction in O’Grady’s work forbids assimilation, yet the struggle to come to terms with the work’s implications—the inability to fix O’Grady’s art in a framework that is already known—strikes at the core of her major artistic contribution.

O’Grady, who first gained visibility in the art world in the early 1980s through her invasions of openings at venues such as the then-new New Museum and the black avant-garde gallery Just Above Midtown, insisted that there could be a complex subjectivity outside “whiteness” and “blackness.” In Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, 1980–83, O’Grady embodied her alter ego, a debutante from Cayenne, French Guiana, dressed

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