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The year 2020–21 was a banner one for artist Lorraine O’Grady, who earned a long-overdue retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, published an edited volume of her writings, and saw the first scholarly monograph of her work, Speaking Out of Turn: Lorraine O’Grady and the Art of Language. In this book, Stephanie Sparling Williams offers a timely rejoinder to the artist’s historical neglect, situating O’Grady’s peripatetic practice in her longstanding investment in language—first as a writer, linguist, and translator, and then as an artist. The book’s interpretive grounding in language—in its conceptual, communicative, and structural dimensions—offers an in-depth complement to the retrospective catalog.
In the introduction, Williams reads O’Grady’s interruptive art-world performances as instances of “speaking out of turn,” the book’s key methodological contribution. Her radical non-comportment, Williams argues, endows this breach of social propriety with heightened disruptive potential as a mode of direct address. O’Grady learned to speak for herself through others: her notorious avatar Mademoiselle Bourgeois Noire, a stand-in for the black bourgeoisie, and the lesser-known Lady in Red, both autobiographical reflections of O’Grady’s familial and fictive female kin. This poly-vocality demands the “miscegenated thinking” that O’Grady posits as necessary to live in the historical wake of colonialism and slavery—an ambivalent structure holding the tensions of violence and desire, destruction and generation, force and consent that characterize the entanglements of Black women and white men cited throughout her work. Williams honors this in both her own interdisciplinary position (merging the work of American studies, art history, ethnographic phenomenology, Black feminist theory, and cultural studies) and in her methodology, turning to “theorists of vision, language, and address” from the European intellectual tradition and from Black feminism.
The book’s roughly chronological chapters encompass much of O’Grady’s oeuvre through increasingly crowded conversations, from a close reading of the artist’s first work, Cutting Out the New York Times (1977), to O’Grady’s creation of a series of diptychs in the 1990s. In order to “examine the legacy of violent and hypervisual performances of address” through their racialized and gendered sites of presentation, Williams’s recursive historiographic approach focuses on the work’s reception in the moment of production, in the early 2000s, during O’Grady’s first institutional recognition, and in the present day (14). This structure acknowledges O’Grady’s still-evolving practice, its continued revision and reinterpretation by the artist herself, and the cyclical production of the intersectional subject through colonialism and violence.
Chapter 1 offers an original analysis of the twenty-six-part newsprint collage Cutting Out the New York Times, an underexamined and foundational work in the artist’s oeuvre. Situating its creation in the ideological and historical context of emergent Black feminist thought of the late 1970s, Williams deftly weaves into this reading O’Grady’s coming of age as an artist and her burgeoning resistance to the authoritative frameworks of class, gender, and knowledge that both constrained and produced her. Recruiting Mikhail Bakhtin’s and James Baldwin’s theories of doubling (vis-à-vis spectatorship, address, thought, and voice), she analyzes the work as an “unwieldy collaboration that invites the hegemonic structure to take up space even as it is deconstructed by the artist” (44).
The persona Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, the focus of chapter 2, embodied a critique from and of the margins in a series of disruptive performances in the early 80s in New York galleries. The author’s incisive reflections on pleasure and play in the persona’s endeavors, and of the generative potential of their failure, invoke notions of estrangement, drag, and alienation as strategies of social critique. The author’s archival work convincingly argues that O’Grady’s performance practice—and the props she deployed—“signify on histories and conceptions of containment, censorship, comportment, and control” (80). Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s dress of white gloves, for example, is “a metaphor of respectability politics undone,” and her speech—referencing Léon Gontran Damas’s poetry—establishes Négritude as ideological foundation. Like Damas, O’Grady bristled at her elite upbringing, and she saw the “too safe” work of successful Black artists as a denial of their own privileged status (76–77). It is a complicated critique given the art world’s racism at the time (though readers unfamiliar with this history would benefit from additional context and footnotes).
Chapter 3 reads two key performances of “myth and manifesto making”—one of personal coming-of-age (Rivers, First Draft, 1982) in a secluded area of New York’s Central Park and the other a collective imagining (Art Is . . . , 1983) in Harlem’s Afro-American Day Parade. Williams deftly reconstructs their fragmentary documentation, but at this point in the book, the link to language begins to feel tenuous: “O’Grady exploited language’s power to mean through embodied enactments in space, tethered to a specific moment in time” (101). Opting to read Rivers through its photographic record—what museumgoers would most likely see—rather than its detailed performance script, Williams admittedly relegates the work’s textual and sonic dimensions to the endnotes, but departs from the introduction’s promise to reveal the “analytic richness the sonic provides” in O’Grady’s work (14). The chapter’s art historical comparisons lack evidentiary connections to these two performances and thus do little to bolster their interpretation; but they do offer intriguing excurses on gendered, racialized, and creative labor. Additional reference to the feminist journal Heresies, in which O’Grady published her textual and visual work at this time, would have been particularly relevant to this chapter’s focus on O’Grady’s struggle to find community.
The book’s final chapter marks O’Grady’s shift to two-dimensional work in the 1990s and 2000s via the “spatial narrative” of the diptych. Enabling O’Grady’s creation of anachronistic and transhistorical visual relationships, Williams argues, the diptych functions as a linguistic tool that reconciles Western dualisms of mind/body, man/woman, Black/white, and nature/culture (135). The 1980 slideshow performance Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline offers structural precedent in its visuals, which mediated between O’Grady’s personal relationship with her late sister and her felt kinship with Egyptian people and culture and its ritualistic performance of their “ontological reconciliation” (129). The provocative juxtapositions that proceed from this in O’Grady’s photocollage works portray the modern subject as produced through colonial violence, desire, and love. The expository discussion of these works and their characters will benefit some readers, and Williams makes clear how the diptych activates miscegenated thinking about hybridity, colonialism, and fictive kinship. While its dialogical power mirrors the visual/performative dialectic of Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, a more focused discussion of just one of the many structural leaps the diptych enables—historical, cultural, geographic, the speculative terrain of verisimilitude—might have helped slow the dizzying pace of ideas discussed here.
As “the first sustained exploration of the art and practice of this feminist conceptual artist,” the book’s capacious scope glosses an important art historical question: O’Grady’s conceptualism. What was conceptual art at the time, what did O’Grady do with it, and how does this book reframe, if not define, our collective understanding of conceptual feminist praxis? Implicitly equated with language-based art, the conceptual hovers as a vague descriptor in Williams’s analyses rather than something discursively redefined in O’Grady’s terms. If her conceptualism engenders hybridity—so resonant with the “both/and”—readers would be well served to learn more from this proposition. The late 1970s witnessed increasingly complex understandings of both conceptual art (its expanded performative, material, and intermedial terrain) and Black Art at this time (including white artists’ appropriation of Black culture). O’Grady’s catalytic encounters with conceptualism are distilled to Lucy Lippard’s book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1968 to 1973 (1974) and Eleanor Antin’s performance as a fictional Black ballerina in Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev (1979). The ambivalent friction of the latter—a white artist’s racial masquerade—remains unexplored, as does the significance of Vito Acconci, O’Grady’s colleague at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
It is as hard to keep up with the series and revisitations outlined in the book as it is to keep up with O’Grady, who is her own most prolific critic. As Williams reflects:
This language-driven redirection and the entanglement between the artist and her work often makes the work’s meaning overdetermined, which raises questions about how, when, or if any of O’Grady’s projects can be experienced outside of her meticulous control. For now at least, with O’Grady constantly monitoring (and editing) the sites through which her work is engaged, adding both new and old material, interpretations of the artist’s complex conceptual art praxis remain inextricably linked to her own (146).
When an artist consistently speaks out of turn but also constructs the didactic, interpretive, and theoretical surrounds of her practice, where are the breaks for the voices of willing and critical interlocutors? O’Grady has attributed her work’s inscrutability to the fact that it was made for an audience to come, and the book recovers much of what was “lost” on audiences earlier on, offering fulsome examinations of multipart works typically seen in a fragmentary state, and speculating on how the artist’s work might live beyond her active voice. In the end, the book renders O’Grady less enigmatic but no less a figure of dynamic fascination; her recalcitrant speech characterizes both her prescience and the art historical lacuna that the book begins to fill.
Ellen Yoshi Tani
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts