Adrian Piper Brings Issues of Racism to MoMA in a Monumental Show

April 29, 2018

Conceptual art appeared partly as an effect of broader social upheavals in the mid-60s and the beginning of the 70s. It was primarily led by the idea of the abolishment of an actual artwork in the traditional sense, appropriation of innovative and unconventional media such are performance, video and land art, and general critique of institutions and commercialization.

Such demands found their stronghold in the early avant-garde legacy, especially in Duchamp’s ready-mades, as they were politically charged and indirectly influenced by the certain movements active in that period - the New Left, Women’s and the Civil Rights movements.

Therefore, it is easy to conclude that such a climate naturally empowered artists to question various aspects of their personal and professional positions, especially in regards to the matters of gender, class, and ideology. The basis was found in the critical writings of various authors from the humanistic specter, which enabled them to think about the methods of their work not only in the context of the craftsmanship, but also in the conceptual sense. The meaning of language, the function of artwork, immediacy, and participation were of great importance, with the belief that art must become an integral part of society.

One of the pioneers of Conceptual Art and the most prolific feminist artists, whose practice unifies all the stated above, is definitely Adrian Piper. Regardless of the media, she has managed to create an impressive and apparently timeless oeuvre, since the majority of her works are still relevant today. The artist questions the subjects of race, gender, and social engagement continuously, whilst keeping high domain of innovation and provocation.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has decided to release the immense retrospective titled Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 practically in the entire building, which is a precedent for the institution. The exhibition tends to shed a new light on Piper’s rather complex and five-decades-long career which still captures attention and goes side by side with contemporaneity.

The American Museum of Modern Art has released a huge retrospective of Adrian Pipers work
Left: Adrian Piper - Drawings about Paintings and Writings about Words #5, 1967. Pencil and charcoal on notebook paper. 11 × 8 1/2 in. (27.9 × 21.6 cm). Collection Louise Fishman. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin / Right: Adrain Piper -The Barbie Doll Drawings #20, 1967. From the series The Barbie Doll Drawings. 1967. Rapidograph pen, ink, and/or pencil on thirty-five sheets of notebook paper. 8 1/2 × 5 1/2 in. (21.6 × 14 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Catie and Donald Marron, The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art, Carol and Morton Rapp, Richard S. Zeisler Bequest (by exchange), Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund, Riva Castleman Endowment Fund, John B. Turner Fund, and Monroe Wheeler Fund. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Photography by Peter Butler

From Minimalism to Conceptual Art

Adrian Piper came to prominence in the mid-1960s with drawings and paintings centered around the artist's LSD experiences, where she still experimented with figuration. After finishing School of Visual Arts in 1969, she started studying philosophy at the City College of New York, and the same year she has worked at the iconic Seth Sieglaub Gallery, an exhibition space that practically inaugurated Conceptual art. Piper became familiar with the works of Yvonne Rainer and Sol LeWitt, with whom she became a lasting friend.

The global political landscape of the 70’s made Piper more and more aware of her gender and race. Namely, the artist was raised in the family of mixed racial background, so she felt marginalized in the art world and exposed to certain stereotypes, not only as a woman but as a person of color as well. The impulses of feeling injustice and discrimination led her to establish clear, uncompromising and unequivocal agenda. During that period, she started performing intensively in public space, with a series of explicit body performances known as Catalysis. In 1973, Piper presented a persona called Mythic Being; it was sort of a drag alter ego (a Black man with Afro hear, mustaches and sunglasses) which was represented both in performances and other media.

From 1982 to 1984, the artist staged a number of happenings or participative actions under the title Funk Lessons through which she educated a wide audience about the African roots of this music genre and therefore the history of the black culture. As a matter of fact, the artist acted as a mediator and spokesperson for the matters of the racial and identity politics.

A few years later, she released a series of works reminiscent of the ones from previous decades where she used typewriter juxtaposed with the common and stereotyped media images of African Americans. Through the 2000s, she used a similar strategy by exploring media images as a powerful tool for deception and instrumentalization.

Despite being shown in gallery spaces, her works were shown a Biennales and art fairs
Left: Adrian Piper - Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981. Pencil on paper. 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). The Eileen Harris Norton Collection © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin / Right: Adrian Piper - Vanilla Nightmares #12, 1986. Charcoal on newspaper. 23 1/2 × 13 1/2 in. (59.7 × 34.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Gwen and Peter Norton. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Photography by John Wronn

The Writing and Academic Career of Artist Adrian Piper

Besides the ongoing artistic activity,  Piper has managed to establish a distinguished academic career. The essay which is still considered one of most important papers on the ideological positioning is the one she wrote in 1981. Titled Ideology, Confrontation, and Political Self Awareness, the text asserts different aspects of one's ideology construction. In the attempt to summarize her interests in philosophy, it could be said that the majority of her publications are devoted to the questions of morality, trust, and authority.

The simultaneous focus on practice and theory has enabled Piper to develop her whole work much further. The artist received few distinct fellowships, and over the years has become an important lecturer at various universities across America. More importantly, she became the first female African American professor of philosophy. The famous Cambridge University Press has published her essay Rationality and The Structure of The Self in two volumes, but since the publisher has demanded Piper to cut one hundred pages from each volume after both were scholarly reviewed, the artist has decided to withdraw and published the essay at the APRA Foundation website.

In order to better understand the importance of this exhibition and the expression of institutional acclaim is the fact that due to certain procedures, Piper was described as a Suspicious Traveler by US Transportation Security Administration in 2006, and was unfamiliar for how long she has been on the list previously. Two years later Piper was forcibly dismissed as a professor at the Wellesley College and since then, the artist has been living in Germany where she manages both the Adrian Piper Research Archive and the Berlin Journal of Philosophy.

Safe #1–4. 1990
Adrian Piper - Safe #1–4. 1990. Mixed-medium installation. Screen-printed text on four black-and-white photographs, mounted on foam core and affixed to the corners of a room, with audio. 30 1/4 x 42 in (76.8 x 106.7 cm); 24 5/8 x 39 ¼ in (62.5 x 99.7 cm); 30 7/16 x 24 15/16 in. (77.3 x 63.1 cm); and 44 5/16 x 36in. (112.6 x 99.1 cm). Detail: #1 of 4. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive. Foundation Berlin. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

Adrian Piper at MoMA

The impact of Adrian Piper’s practice on the art world has never more been notable than in contemporary moment, which is proven by the international recognition she has received in recent years, especially with the honors such as the Gold Lion prize for the best artist of the Venice Biennale in 2015. With the performative piece titled The Probable Trust Registry, she has managed to question the very notion of responsibility, honesty, dignity, and by doing so, Piper once again showed a high level of wit, innovation, and relevance.

The current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was opened on 27 March and will be on display until 22 July 2018. It consists of 290 works of different media, the majority of which are already mentioned in the text. From paintings and photographs, to the footage of performances, the installment is an extraordinarily huge and rare overview of the work of a living artist. An exhibition catalog and a reader will follow the exhibition, as well as a dense following program of enactments of the most important performances of Adrian Piper, as well as lectures.

The recurrent occupation of Adrian Piper with the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny is more than ever present on the global scale, which makes the whole retrospective rather politically engaged and actual. One segment of the artist's statement which dates from 1991 perhaps gives the best insight into her practice and brings us even closer to the impeccability of her work:

I find it discouraging when someone says of my work, 'The message is obvious, she's against racism.' I think that expresses an unwillingness to pursue the implications of the issues and strategies I explore in the work — it's like shutting down at square one. I try for ultimate clarity, with multiple reverberations and multiple implications at the same time. I try for simplicity, not the oversimplification.

Editors’ Tip: Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016


Adrian Piper has consistently produced groundbreaking work that has profoundly shaped the form and content of conceptual art since the 1960s. Strongly inflected by her longstanding involvement with philosophy and yoga, her pioneering investigations into the political, social, psychological and spiritual potential of conceptual art have had an incalculable influence on artists working today. Published in conjunction with the most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date, this catalog presents more than 280 artworks that encompass the full range of Piper’s mediums: works on paper, video, multimedia installation, performance, painting, sound and photo-texts. Essays by curators and scholars examine her extensive research into altered states of consciousness; the introduction of the Mythic Being―her subversive masculine alter-ego; her media and installation works from after 1980, which reveal and challenge stereotypes of race and gender; and the global conditions that illuminate the significance of her art.

Featured images: Adrian Piper - The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, 1975. Oil crayon on gelatin silver print. 8 x 10 in. (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Collection Thomas Erben, New York. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; Adrian Piper - Catalysis III, 1970. Documentation of the performance. Two gelatin silver prints and text mounted on colored paper. Overall 8 1/2 × 11 in. (21.6 × 27.9 cm). Photographs by Rosemary Mayer. Collection Thomas Erben, New York. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; Adrian Piper - Decide Who You Are #1: Skinned Alive, 1992. Screenprinted images and text on three sheets of paper, mounted on foam core 72 × 42 in. (182.8 × 106.7 cm); 72 × 63 in. (182.8 × 160 cm); and 72 × 42 in. (182.8 × 106.7 cm). Collection Margaret and Daniel S. Loeb. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; Adrian Piper - Funk Lessons, 1983–84. Documentation of the group performance at University of California, Berkeley, November 6, 1983. Color photograph. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Photography Courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley; Adrian Piper - What It’s Like, What It Is #3, 1991. Video installation. Video (color, sound), constructed wood environment, four monitors, mirrors, and lighting, dimensions variable. Installation view in Dislocations, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 20, 1991–January 7, 1992. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired in part through the generosity of Lonti Ebers, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, Candace King Weir, and Lévy Gorvy Gallery, and with support from The Modern Women’s Fund. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. All images courtesy The Museum of Modern Art New York.

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