Adrian Piper @Lévy Gorvy

JTF (just the facts): Three bodies of work installed on off-white walls in two rooms on the third floor. Selections from The Mythic Being are framed and matted on three walls in the East gallery; It’s Just Art is displayed on a video monitor, along with 15 photographs framed and matted on the West wall of the East gallery; Here is shown separately in the Western-most gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Details are as follows:

  • five selections from The Mythic Being series: Cycle I, 6/6/1974 (Pencil and felt tip pen on lines paper and B&W photograph, 10×8 inches); I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear (B&W gelatin silver print, oil crayon, 8×10 inches, 1975); Look But Don’t Touch (B&W gelatin silver print, oil crayon, 8×10 inches, 1975); Say It Like You Mean It, Baby-cakes (B&W gelatin silver print, oil crayon, 8×10 inches, 1975); It Doesn’t Matter Who You Are (three Iris inkjet prints, 8×10 inches, 1975-2000).
  • It’s Just Art, 1980. Documentation of the performance of the work on April 23, 1980 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio: performance poster, B&W print on paper (10 13/16×14 1/8 inches); performance diagram (8 1/2×11 inches); 15 B&W gelatin silver prints on baryte paper, marker (11 13/16×8 ¼ inches); 3 paper-text collages, marker (10×8 inches); DVD video of the reconstruction of the performance, 24:42 min.
  • Here, 2008-2017, engraved wall text, site specific, dimensions variable.

Comments/Context: Despite her self-exile in Berlin, where she has lived for much of the last two decades, Adrian Piper has maintained a forceful presence on contemporary art in her native country. Any post-1970s history of Conceptual, Performance, Feminist, or African-American art in America would be remiss if it didn’t feature one or more of her pieces on racial and gender identity. Even if they don’t know it, many of the Millennial artists elaborating on these themes are following trails she blazed in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Trained in philosophy, with a masters and a doctorate from Harvard, she has been no less trenchant and influential as a critic. Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968-1992, her two-volume autobiographic collection published in 1996 by MIT Press, contains several essays (e.g. “Power Relations within Existing Art Institutions,” “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists”) that have become widely reprinted on the internet and anthologized in textbooks.

For those not familiar with her many diverse bodies of work, this sampler is, alas, not an especially agreeable rendez-vous for a first date. Displayed in a small room on the top floor of the gallery, as if relegated to the attic, the text-pieces (behind glass on black backgrounds) are hard to read in the reflective glare from the window. (To be fair, as photographs, they were never intended to be pre-possessing to begin with.)

The five selections from her Mythic Being series nonetheless give an inkling of just how far ahead of the pack she was by making herself into an image that mirrored stereotypes of the day back at the viewer. The piece was an ongoing performance, begun in 1974, in which the multi-racial Piper dressed up as a black man (in Afro wig, drooping moustache, mirrored sunglasses, cigarette in mouth) and gauged reactions of others to her swaggering and sometimes hostile persona. The piece adhered to the no-frills Conceptual-art ethos of the day but had many variations. Other elements consisted of posters and photographs, self-portraits of this character whom Piper animated with text in the style of a comic strip. (The art historian John Bowles analyzed the many modes that the Mythic Being assumed in a 1999 monograph.)

The excerpts here consist of photographic self-portraits that she has crudely embellished with felt-tip pen. In an early piece from 1974 she faces the camera next to a thought bubble that reads: “Don’t feel particularly horny, but feel I should masturbate anyway just because I feel so good about doing it.” (When she submitted this in June, 1974 as an ad for the galleries page of the Village Voice, they censored her.)

Piper claims that the character is “the personification of our subliminal hatreds and dissatisfactions, which blind and enslave us by being subliminal.” But as she has fashioned this male stereotype out of images that she absorbed through the media, it would seem not to be created from below the surface but from it. (The disguise is actually more androgynous than aggressively macho, the make-up taking ingredients from dangerous “types” from the period, including Angela Davis, Patty Hearst as Tanya, a Blaxploitation pimp, and Carlos the Jackal.)

Some may bristle, as I have, at Piper’s wanton use of the second-person pronoun. It’s well and good for her to bring the viewer into her work, and more honest than pretending we don’t matter in the nascency of its meaning. But for her persona to claim in a thought bubble that “I embody everything you most love and fear” is both presumptuous and melodramatic. (Barbara Kruger has overused cheap rhetorical device, turning up the dial to 11 in her hectoring installations.)

The pronoun is integral to It’s Just Art, a multi-layered piece that she performed several times in the 1980s. It superimposes news photographs of political events of the day, notably the massacres in Cambodia of civilians by Pol Pot and the refugee exodus that followed, over Piper’s self-portrayal in dark sunglasses from the Mythic Being. The video version includes a further layer of voiceover commentary by a person who seems to question both the mainstream interpretation of political events and the left-wing’s take on the news.

Both the still-photograph version for the wall, as well as the video, have 15 text panels. All but the last are divided in two, with the bottom half closed off in parentheses. Written in the second person, these words are ostensibly more sympathetic toward the position of the viewer than in the confrontational Mythical Being. Throughout the unfolding work, the artist acknowledges that it may be baffling toward the uninitiated.

The first panel reads like an axiom for a philosophical treatise on dance: “The meanings of my movements are private (You may wonder what I mean by that)”. In the second panel, she elaborates: “But they establish a certain physical intimacy between us nonetheless (Hesitantly you agree, wondering what this commits you to)”. The eighth panel declares that she may have ulterior motives: “I am merely a significant, physical object, exerting myself to hold your attention (You wonder why you’re being told Cambodia’s tragic story)”. In the twelfth panel she lays her cards on the table: “We provoke each other (You don’t like being made to feel guilty about your moral lassitude)”. In the next she confides that “We flatter each other (Anyway you don’t see what this has to do with the rest of this piece)”. Finally, she writes: “We defend each other (You certainly didn’t come to an art performance to hear a lecture on current events)”. The final panel reads: “Against impinging political realities.”

Like other artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s engaged in criticism of the media (Ant Farm, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler, Robert Heinecken), Piper wants to counteract the passive and numbing consumption of world disasters that presses on the consciousness of anyone exposed to the news. Unlike some of the above, however, she playfully implicates herself in It’s Just Art. The title is sarcastic. It is her belief that art is never without political content or free of institutional snares, however subliminal or well-intentioned. She has devoted her career, as a performer and writer, to exposing what is hidden, censored, or impolite to talk about. Her texts here nonetheless recognize the complicated dance that goes on between artists and viewers and that allow messages to be passed back and forth. Her art is social, collaborative, theatrical.

I am not sure what to make of Piper’s Here, installed on its own in an adjacent room. A site-specific wall text, it is cut into the white wall like a classical inscription. The three sentences read from top to bottom:

I WAS HERE

WE WERE HERE

WE ARE HERE

These words are repeated on each of three walls—in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. The choice of languages seems to refer to the Middle East and to the perpetual struggle among Jews, Arabs, and foreign powers over who shall control the land of Palestine. (I thought immediately of the Steve Reich-Beryl Korot video opera, The Cave, which employs Jewish, Arabic and English speakers to tell the story of Abraham and the contention over his burial place in Hebron.)

The tenor of the phrases is ambiguous and genderless. Uttered in the first person singular, and in the past tense, they are the words of graffiti (or photography)—a personal declaration of one’s former presence but current absence. (“I make this mark/image in hopes you will not forget me.”) In the second person plural, the words are those of a couple, a family, a group, a tribe, or a nation. In either case, carved precisely on pristine walls, they aren’t intended to deface. But neither are the words indelible. They are site-specific, sliced into impermanent sheetrock, not granite.

Piper has been labeled a “difficult” artist, in both senses of the word. In 2013 she requested that NYU’s Grey Gallery remove video  Mythic Being from Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, arguing that displaying the work in this context would only further marginalize the non-white artists the survey was supposed to support. During the ’70s and ’80s her work could be seen semi-regularly in New York art galleries, at John Weber and Paula Cooper, before her visibility declined after the millennium. This show at Lévy Gorvy is, according to them, part of a “continuing collaboration,” a hopeful sign for those of us who want to see more than scattered bits and pieces from her vast output. A retrospective is long overdue.

Collector’s POV: Most of the works in his show are not for sale. Those that are (the gallery would not be specific about which ones) range in price between €180000 and €250000. 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 outcomes may not be entirely representative of the market for her best work.

Read more about: Adrian Piper, Lévy Gorvy

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