Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): Approximately 300 works installed on the museum’s sixth floor and in the second-floor Marron Atrium. The presentation is roughly chronological, from 1965 to 2016. (Installation views below.)

The photographic works in the exhibition are:

  • 13 works involving photographs with typescript, handwritten texts, book pages, and/or audio
  • 1 work consisting of 15 color photographs and 3 black and white photographs
  • 4 works consisting of multiple gelatin silver prints
  • 1 work consisting of gouache, tempera, and cut-and-pasted paper labels on ten enlarged black-and-white photographs
  • 6 photostats
  • 1 work comprising 6 photostats
  • 3 photolithographs
  • 6 works involving oil crayon drawings on gelatin silver prints
  • 1 oil crayon drawing on black and white photograph
  • 8 works involving screen-printed texts on black-and-white photographs
  • 4 works involving screen-printed photographic images and texts on paper
  • 15 photocopies of photographs with printed text
  • 1 suite of nine photolithographs

In addition to photographs, the exhibition includes:

  • 15 paintings on canvas or canvas board
  • 1 nine-part painting on canvas
  • 3 Masonite sculptures
  • 137 works on paper in various mediums, many with multiple elements
  • 16 mixed-medium installations
  • 1 video installation
  • 6 sound works
  • 2 performance soundtracks
  • 1 series of advertisements in the Village Voice 1973–75
  • 4 magazine pages
  • Audio documentation of 3 performances/lectures
  • Video documentation of 12 performances/discussions/lectures/interviews/installations
  • Mixed-medium documentation of 1 performance
  • Photographic documentation of 4 performances
  • Film and photographic documentation of 1 performance
  • 2 videos
  • 3 animated videos (color, silent)
  • 1 text and image on computer monitor
  • 1 participatory group performance
  • 1 voluntary group performance
  • 1 installation and participatory group performance
  • 1 sandwich-board performance
  • 1 letterpress card with gold leaf
  • 3 wall prints
  • 2 engraved mirrors with gold leaf in wood frames
  • 1 piece of engraved Plexiglas with gold leaf, inserted into wall
  • 6 digital prints on wallpaper
  • 1 digital file displayed on a color monitor
  • 1 printed card

In addition to works by Piper, the show includes:

  • A videotaped interview with the artist by Robert Del Principe
  • A videotaped interview with the artist by Lynn Tjernan Lukkas
  • A video excerpted from the black-and-white 16mm film, Other Than Art’s Sake (1973), by Peter Kennedy

The Museum of Modern Art has produced two publications to accompany the exhibition: a companion catalogue (here, 352 pages, more than 300 illustrations, 10×12 inches, $65 hardcover) with essays by Christophe Cherix, David Platzker, Cornelia Butler, and Adrian Piper; and Adrian Piper: A Reader with new critical essays by Diarmuid Costello, Jörg Heiser, Kobena Mercer, Nizan Shaked, Vid Simoniti, and Elvan Zabunyan (here, 280 pages, approximately 6.5×12 inches, $45 paperback).

Comments/Context: In a 1991 text, Adrian Piper wrote, in part, “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 oversimplification. I don’t want to make any prescriptions about what people should do. I just want to penetrate the layers of illusion and self-deception as far as possible and do it clearly without losing any of the mind-bending complexity of the issues.”

The text accompanied an installation that Piper showed at MoMA that year titled What It’s Like, What It Is #3 (1991), a room with bleacher-style seating surrounding several video monitors. On them, a black man recites a long list of the things he is not, as if reciting a mantra: “I’m not crazy. I’m not servile, I’m not stupid…” The piece is clearly intended to bring white viewers up against their conscious or unconscious racist assumptions. But it also, perhaps, refers to the the way those assumptions may be destructively internalized by those on whom they are imposed.

What It’s Like is included in Piper’s current 50-year survey at MoMA, which has, for the first time, turned over its entire sixth floor to the work of a living artist. The show—as curated by Christophe Cherix, chief curator in MoMA’s drawings and prints department; David Platzker, a former curator, and Tessa Ferreyros, a curatorial assistant, in the same department; and Connie Butler, chief curator at UCLA’s Hammer Museum—doesn’t simplify. But while mind-bending in itself by virtue of its size, scope, and density, it is nevertheless an admirably clear delineation of Piper’s career-long concerns and methods.

The exhibition lays out a half century of concerted inquiry on the part of the artist into the still pressing issues of income inequality, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, but also into the function of art, the meaning of freedom, and the nature of consciousness. To her investigations, Piper brings an array of performance and conceptual art strategies; her personal and family history; her identity as a light-skinned black woman; her dual careers as an artist and a philosopher (she has a PhD from Harvard in philosophy, and has taught the subject for decades); her engagement with yoga and Eastern belief systems, her inventiveness, and a changing cast of personas culled from collective imaginaries. Much of the time, she engages her audience directly, enlisting their participation—not only as witnesses, but as interlocutors and partners—in her projects.

The show opens with a group of paintings and drawings from 1965 arising out of the artist’s early experiments with LSD. In them, bodies are subsumed into wildly colored and patterned backgrounds; a lavender nude, for example is only intermittently visible within a spiral of orange and green hatched lines.While Piper’s graphic skills and interest in transforming conceptions and perceptions of reality are on display in these works—as well as in a 1967 series of surrealistic drawings of broken, reassembled, and extremely lively Barbie dolls—she quickly gravitated first to Minimalism (in a series of accomplished sculptures showing the clear influence of Sol LeWitt, a friend), and then to task-based conceptual art.

Though on the surface Piper’s early conceptual work seems—in the tradition of the form—determinedly neutral, a notable intensity prevails. This is especially true in works where objects and procedures (a single square in a grid, for example, or the dividing of a six-inch square into smaller and smaller sections) are replaced by textual descriptions so over the top they seem more like performance pieces than works of conceptual art. By 1970, signs of a growing engagement with the world would appear in Context #7 and Context #8, the latter a collection of all the fliers and postcards Piper received in one year, and the former, part of her contribution to the 1970 show “Information” at MoMA, inviting visitors to share their drawings, thoughts, and ideas on blank pages provided by the artist.

That same year, Piper created several performance works, appearing on buses and in public places as an unpleasant or disturbing presence, talking to herself, covering herself with wet paint, and even dousing herself in various foul-smelling substances, including cod-liver oil and sour milk. In 1972, back in the studio, she made some of her most haunting photographs. Standing in near darkness, her body nearly invisible in the gloom, she appears to be attempting to locate herself in space and time in the same way earlier pieces located squares on a grid. She would continue to use her body as a kind of grounding device for the rest of her career.

In 1973, carrying the performance of presence and difference into more specifically racial territory, Piper created the Mythic Being, a masculine alter ego sporting and afro and sunglasses who—in street performances, altered photographs and newspaper advertisements—functions as a figment of white imagination (in one photograph, a speech bubble announces “I am everything you most hate and fear”).

Although race and racial formations would continue to be a steady theme in her art from the mid-1970s on, Piper has never focused exclusively on racism. The work in the next few galleries includes her responses to the social ills of the 1970s (in an enlarged image of a newspaper photograph of squatters protesting their eviction, she replaces the text in one sign to read THIS IS NOT A PERFORMANCE); the Vietnam War (annotations by the Mythic Being in a series of photographs of decimated villages remind us that YOU ALREADY KNOW ABOUT THIS UNFORTUNATE SITUATION; AFTER ALL, YOU WATCH THE NEWS…”); and the purpose of art (one installation is a room empty save for a photograph of a group of black men; an audio track inquires what we hope to experience when we enter the room—ironically, the piece, intended to challenge assumptions about what art is for, seems to be the new selfie hot spot.)

Further on, text and photographic works recount Piper’s personal history and that of her family, focusing on her African American heritage. They are accompanied by the drawing Self-Portrait Emphasizing My Negroid Features (1981) and by the fabulous performance piece Funk Lessons (1983–84) in which she teaches a group of white students some funky footwork. An installation comprising four blurry photographs of black men accompanied by four audio tracks representing four different white responses—they range from angry to paternalistic—is a cacophony of entrenched attitudes and ideas.

In the mid-1980s, Piper returned to her own body as subject. Made, as the artist herself states, at a moment of personal and professional loss, What Will Become of Me (1985-ongoing) consists of her hair and nail cuttings preserved in honey jars. It is owned by MoMA, and will be completed when a final jar, containing the artist’s ashes, joins the others. Slightly more upbeat is The Big Four-O (1988), made on Piper’s 40th birthday. On a video monitor in room littered with bits of a plastic suit of armor and vials containing the artist’s bodily fluids, Piper, back to the camera, dances for 40 minutes without stopping, marking her continued presence.

The tone sharpens in a group of works from the end of the 1980s. In Close to Home (1987) printed questionnaires ask viewers—still presumed to be white—if they have, or have ever had, a black friend, co-worker, or sexual partner; My Calling Card (1986–90), a series of business cards for everyday use, includes one to be handed to anyone making a racist joke and another to anyone making an unwanted sexual advance. And in Vanilla Nightmares (1986), a ravishing group of drawings on New York Times spreads, highly exoticized figures of black men and women invade the terrain of all-white privilege. They put back on display, after a long hiatus, Piper’s extraordinary abilities as a draftsman.

Perhaps the most powerful work in the show, Piper’s seminal Cornered (1988), features a table on its side jammed into a corner of a gallery. Behind it, as if barricaded, the artist, shown on a monitor, calmly announces that she is black, that chances are the viewer is at least partly black, and that the problem of race, therefore, is one that needs to be solved together.

The first part of the exhibition culminates in a group of direct address works in which typewritten phrases are superimposed over found photographs. A horrifying picture of a lynching victim bears the words, LAND OF THE FREE. Another text, printed over the image of a small girl, begins IT’S FINE. I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN. Still another, set below a picture of an impoverished African woman—the only kind of image of African women, it sometimes seems, that Americans see—reads WE MADE YOU. The message is clear. We are all implicated in our collective reality and its delusions.

An empty gallery serves as a passage to the last section of the show. But to enter, you must hum a tune, and watchful guards are there to make sure you do. In a gallery beyond, a stack of flyers emblazoned with a graphic of a gun’s crosshairs, behind which is ghosted image of Trayvon Martin and the words, IMAGINE WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE ME. Works of such specificity are outnumbered in this section by those that take a longer—though no less penetrating—view of the human condition. Next to the stack of flyers hangs a group of photographs depicting families, couples, and groups of friends in which every face has been obliterated with sandpaper. Each image bears the typewritten phrase, EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY.

On a monitor, Piper cries; in a trio of large-scale prints, the Hindu god Shiva dances. When Shiva stops, according to Indian belief, the world will end. Until such time, because with clarity comes responsibility, visitors can stop at kiosks outside the galleries and sign contracts agreeing to a range of ethical behaviors. It’s yet another reminder, though the show was conceived before Donald Trump’s election, of the continued relevance of Piper’s project.

Like contemporaries such as Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler, and like younger artists such as Cameron Rowland, Adrian Piper has taken Conceptualism’s system-based methods and applied them with consistency and rigor to socially conscious art. Whether or not any artistic endeavor can truly effect social change is a question Piper has clearly asked herself. In her essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, she writes, perhaps optimistically, that, “. . . no talk that talks can substitute for direct, unguarded, and sustained exposure to the intuitive presence of the artwork …” If this should ever be true, it is true in this challenging, mind-altering, and long overdue show.

Collector’s POV: Adrian Piper is represented by Lévy Gorvy in New York (here). Only a handful of Piper’s works (some as multiple prints) have appeared at photography auctions in the past decade. Prices have ranged between roughly $8000 to $15000, but these few outcomes are clearly not entirely representative of the market for her best work.

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