Lorraine O’Grady’s 40 year fight for inclusion

In 1980, Lorraine O’Grady decided to become an artist, and because she was already 45, she felt she only had time for masterpieces. O’Grady had spent the years prior immersed in New York’s flourishing counterculture, working as a rock critic for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice (a leap from her earlier career as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government). The period that gave rise to art superstars like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring has long been romanticized as a creative utopia, but O’Grady—both then and now—saw the city’s art scene for what it was: an elitist world defined by hierarchies of race, gender, and class. Eager to make a change, she resolved not just to enter the New York art world but to “invade” it.

“You have to understand that I never thought I would be successful,” says O’Grady, who at 86 still maintains her rocker “uniform” of a black leather jacket and cowboy boots. At the Brooklyn Museum this spring, O’Grady’s invasion of the art world, staged over the course of 40 years, will culminate in her first-ever retrospective. “Both/And,” which opens to the public on March 5, offers a monumentally delayed moment of recognition for O’Grady’s pioneering body of work, one that combines the politics of intersectional feminism (a term that wasn’t even coined until nine years into O’Grady’s artistic career) with progressive mediums like performance art and conceptual photography.

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