“WHAT DO YOU need to know about me to understand my work?” Fraser asked six of her graduate students. It was the first day of fall classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Fraser is a tenured professor in the Department of Art. They sat in a half circle in a stark white room illuminated by the eye of a large projector. Fraser, in a black dress and multicolor Issey Miyake scarf, was explaining early sources of her critical approach, and the lecture had the riveting, unpredictable atmosphere of one of her performances. “That I was the youngest in a family of five,” she continued. “It was extremely competitive, and fairness became extremely important to me from that position. I had to defend my little share, right? My little piece of the pie.” Her obsession with equity, she said, again tearing up, partly “comes down to that, to being the runt.”
Fraser was born in Montana in 1965 and grew up on the West Coast. Her parents married two months after they met in New York, where her father, the son of a cattle rancher, was studying philosophy at Columbia University and her Puerto Rican-born mother was taking painting classes at the Art Students League. The family moved to the Bay Area in 1967. “Pretty quickly, the context of Berkeley began to unravel the family,” Fraser later told me, over a tray of chicken and rice at a tiny Jamaican spot in Culver City. “We became hippies very quickly, my mother got involved in the women’s movement, became a lesbian a bit before that. My brothers, I think, were selling drugs when they were 10, 11? We were all pretty precocious.”
The artist grew up memorizing Adrienne Rich poems, browsing “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and crafting banners for gay pride marches in her mother’s kitchen. She remembers cutting class and catching a bus into San Francisco to see Judy Chicago’s major feminist installation “The Dinner Party” at the age of 13. Two years later, she quit going to school altogether (her mother wrote her a note) and made her way to New York’s East Village, where she applied to the School of Visual Arts.
While she waited on her acceptance, Fraser visited the Met three or four times a week. “I was pretty freaked out about having dropped out of high school and what was going to happen to me,” she said. “I had to sort of redeem myself.” Soon, Fraser knew most of the museum by heart, from the lavish period rooms to the Greek and Roman marbles. She was attracted to “East Coast cultural institutions and status codes,” despite feeling, or precisely because she felt, “deeply illegitimate — as a high school dropout, as a hippie kid, as a half-Puerto Rican kid … I think I was able, from the very beginning, to recognize, even if I couldn’t use the words ‘ambivalence’ or ‘conflicted investments,’” she said, assuming a deep professorial register to mock her own preferred terms, “how much I wanted from these institutions … and that I could find a kind of legitimacy in that world. And, at the same time, I did feel absolutely crushed by it.”
For Fraser, her performances are not idle exercises but dogged attempts to change audiences and the larger ecosystems they inhabit.
At S.V.A., Fraser found her tribe: a group of young artists, including Mark Dion, Tom Burr, Gregg Bordowitz and Collier Schorr, who gathered around Craig Owens, the art critic and gay activist, among other postmodernist teachers. Fraser stood out from the start. “Andrea was scary brilliant,” said Bordowitz, who became Fraser’s boyfriend. “Frighteningly brilliant, very intimidating. And at the same time, very fragile, because I think she even scared herself sometimes with what she saw and understood about the art world and its terrible contradictions.” At 18, Fraser left S.V.A. for the Whitney Independent Study Program, then a theory-intensive boot camp. There, she studied with the artist Barbara Kruger, whose work critiques systems of power and control and the cultures they create. (They now teach together at U.C.L.A.) Kruger praised Fraser’s “incredibly brilliant mind,” but Fraser saw herself quite differently. “At the Whitney program, my image of myself was that I was just, like, hiding under the seminar table in fear,” she said.