– Autumn/Winter 2018

The Art World Has Lost Its Mind: Lorraine O'Grady and the Birth of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire

Bridget R. Cooks

Lorraine O’Grady, Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire removes the cape and puts on her gloves), 1980–83/2009, silver gelatin print, 23.83 × 17.78cm. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York

By the time Lorraine O’Grady premiered her performance as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire on 5 June 1980, the art world had lost its mind. This was not the result of O’Grady’s critical disturbance, but rather its inspiration: the art system’s careless, self-absorbed and self-indulgent acts of privilege and entitlement. O’Grady’s ‘unfettered call for action’1 occurred outside Just Above Midtown (JAM), a gallery in the Tribeca neighbourhood of New York, at the opening of the exhibition ‘Outlaw Aesthetics’. Mlle Bourgeoise arrived uninvited, in a debutante gown and cape made with 180 pairs of white gloves, and escorted by an elegant man in a tuxedo. A sparkling tiara announced her as royalty, and a pageant sash draped across her body read ‘Mlle Bourgeoise Noire 1955’. ‘Won’t you help me lighten my heavy bouquet?’, she asked, dispersing dozens of white chrysanthemums to the opening’s assembled crowd.2 When all of the flowers were gone, she was left with a white cat-o-nine-tails at the centre of the former bouquet. She then began to whip herself, in an act of punishment and motivation, and all eyes were on her when she

  1. Franklin Sirmans, ‘No Safety Net: Lorraine O’Grady and Performing in Public without Sanction’, in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 2013, p.34.

  2. Judith Wilson, ‘Lorraine O’Grady: Critical Interventions’, in Lorraine O’Grady: Photomontages, New York: INTAR Gallery, 1991, p.4.

  3. Lorraine O’Grady, ‘Mlle Bourgeoise Noire: Performance Synopsis’, 2007, available at http:// lorraineogrady.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Lorraine-OGrady_Mlle-Bourgeoise-Noire- Performance-Synopsis_moca-org.pdf (last accessed on 19 June 2018).

  4. See Bridget R. Cooks, ‘Black Artists and Activists: Harlem on My Mind, 1969’, in Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2011, pp.52–85.

  5. Rivers rejected the abstract sculpture that Peter Bradley contributed to the exhibition. To Bradley’s surprise and rage, Rivers pasted photocopies of Black nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey, over the work. See B. R. Cooks, ‘Revisiting The De Luxe Show: Black, White, and “Hard Art” in Houston, 1971’, Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, vol.26, no.1, Winter/Spring 2014.

  6. Hilton Kramer, ‘Black Art or Merely Social History?’, The New York Times, 26 June 1977. Kramer made a similar disclaimer in 1970 regarding Black curator Edmund B. Gaither’s exhibition, ‘Afro-American Artists: Boston and New York’ at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. See H. Kramer, ‘“Black Art” and Expedient Politics’, The New York Times, 7 June 1970 and Black artist Benny Andrews’s response, ‘On Understanding Black Art’, The New York Times, 21 June 1970.

  7. As Linda Goode Bryant recalls in a 2011 interview filmed for Colored Frames: A Visual Art Documentary (2011, directed by Lerone D. Wilson); see excerpt, ‘Linda Goode Bryant – Controversial Exhibitions’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsi-RTTLFFY (last accessed on 19 June 2018).

  8. Goode Bryant remembers Burden’s justification for his performance as a Black man: ‘I went to a pre- dominantly black high school in Los Angeles, and I’m just a white man expressing his blackness.’ Ibid.

  9. Grace Glueck, ‘“Racism” Protest Slated Over Title of Art Show’, The New York Times, 14 April 1979. Jeff Chang reports that Newman appeared at the exhibition in blackface. See Jeff Chang, ‘On Multiculturalism: Notes on the Ambitions and Legacies of a Movement’, GIA Reader, vol.18, no.3, Fall 2007, available at http://www.giarts.org/article/multiculturalism (last accessed on 19 June 2018).

  10. These included: The Studio Museum in Harlem; Cinque Gallery, New York; Acts of Art Gallery, New York; Anacostia Museum of Culture and History, Washington, DC; Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists, Boston; Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles; African American Museum in Philadelphia; Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles; Watts Towers Art Center, Los Angeles; and California African American Museum, Los Angeles.

  11. A partial list includes the following exhibitions: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) mounted ‘Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington’ (1971), the museum’s first exhibition featuring Black American artists, and followed it with two more exhibitions, ‘A Panorama of Black Artists’ (1972) and ‘Two Centuries of Black American Art’ (1976); and sculptor Martin Puryear was given his first solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC in 1977.

  12. See Kellie Jones, ‘“It’s Not Enough to Say ‘Black is Beautiful”: Abstraction at the Whitney, 1969– 1974’, in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Discrepant Abstraction, London: Institute of International Visual Arts/MIT Press, 2006, pp.154–81.

  13. J. Wilson, ‘Lorraine O’Grady: Critical Interventions’, op. cit., p.3. O’Grady’s sense of the preciousness of the art directly influenced the look and form of her performance of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire.

  14. L. O’Grady, interview by Laura Cottingham, 5 November 1995, available at http://lorraineogrady. com/writing/interview-by-laura-cottingham-1995/ (last accessed on 19 June 2018).

  15. Information on the exhibition is available at the New Museum’s digital archive, https://archive. newmuseum.org/exhibitions/43 (last accessed on 19 June 2018).

  16. L. O’Grady, ‘Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’, op. cit.

  17. See Elizabeth Berkowitz, ‘With all Good Intentions: Jacob Lawrence at the Museum of Modern Art’, Culture, Theory and Critique, vol.58, no.3, 2017, pp.294–305.

  18. Ibid.

  19. The project, by Joe Scanlan, a white professor at Yale University, followed his earlier exhibition of a self-portrait in blackface, Self Portrait (Pay Dirt) (2003), without incident. Scanlan took the name for his fictional Black woman artist from an actual Black person, former NFL player Donnell Woolford. The Black queer artist collective HowDoYouSayYamInAfrican? (The Yams Collective) withdrew its work from the 2014 Whitney Biennial in protest of the inclusion of Scanlan's works.

  20. See Jared Sexton, ‘The Rage: Some Closing Comments on “Open Casket”’, Contemptorary [online journal], 21 May 2017, available at http://contemptorary.org/the-rage-sexton/ (last accessed on 19 June 2018). Despite demands for the Whitney to remove and destroy the painting, Open Casket remained on view for the planned duration of the exhibition. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston opened a solo exhibition of Schutz’s art later that year, which was protested by Boston-based artists and defended by members of the National Academy. See Henri Neuendorf, ‘Coming to Dana Schutz’s Defence, Cindy Sherman and Other Artists Pen and Open Letter to Her Critics’, artnet News [online magazine], 4 August 2017, available at https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/dana-schutz- defend-open-letter-1042361 (last accessed on 19 June 2018).

  21. See Roger Schonfeld and Mariët Westermann with Liam Sweeney, ‘The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey’, 28 July 2015, available at https://mellon.org/ media/filer_public/ba/99/ba99e53a-48d5-4038-80e1-66f9ba1c020e/awmf_museum_diversity_ report_aamd_7-28-15.pdf (last accessed on 19 June 2018).