Proof of Concept: Thinking About Adrian Piper

A new show at MOMA explores the artist, performer, and scholar’s five decades of challenging viewers


A stubborn fugitivity runs through the work of Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and performer—as well as writer and philosophy scholar—whose career of more than five decades is the subject of a thorough, gripping retrospective this season at the Museum of Modern Art, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016

Piper is always in two situations at once — an inside-outsider, never at ease, she is artist and academic, theorist and performer, impulsive improviser and ruminating self-examiner. Some of her works are naked self-portraiture, literal or through text that inspects her own psyche or family history. Others are challenges to the viewer, sometimes imperious, that she structures using photo, sound, and text to demand we audit our behavior and biases. At one point, the path through the exhibition requires you to traverse the Humming Room, an empty space where you must hum a tune in order to enter — you choose the tune, but you have to hum, and the guard is checking. The experience takes us deep inside and far outside of ourselves, a clue, perhaps, to Piper’s method and the tug of forces in her mind.

Race is crucial here — and particularly, racial ambiguity. Piper, 69, who grew up in Upper Manhattan, the daughter of a lawyer and a college administrator, is of mixed race, and was light-skinned enough to generally merge into spaces of white privilege, including the world of New York minimalists and conceptualists that she entered as a young woman in the late 1960s, forging for instance a long-term friendship with Sol LeWitt. In this milieu she shed her teenage figurative experiments, as well as her loud color works made under the influence of LSD, in favor of a hybrid language mixing photography, drawing, text, painting, sound, and performance that she would refine over the years.

Yet she was acutely conscious of her Black origins and history: Her ancestors Philip and Nellie Piper had been owner and slave on a plantation in Louisiana but, unusually, married after the Civil War and settled in Ohio, among abolitionists. (Piper details this genealogy in a text-dense work on paper, Never Forget, made in 2016 and one of the final pieces in the exhibition.) Questions of racial assertion, projection, and unease, whether toward oneself or others, suffuse her work. But she deals more in queries than answers; in identity as process, not as fixed state.

Piper moved her base to Berlin, following a protracted legal and administrative conflict with her employer, Wellesley College, where she had been a professor of philosophy since 1990s but had also forcefully raised issues of institutional racism. These days she avoids the United States altogether, and did not bother to come to New York for her retrospective, nor for that matter to do interviews. (Indeed, she regards most art writing and criticism as somewhat pointless: “No talk that talks can substitute for direct, unguarded, and sustained exposure to the intuitive presence of the artwork on terms that cannot be talked at all,” she writes in the exhibition catalog, in a contribution that is mostly an essay on Kantian philosophy.) Despite the distance, however, she was closely involved in every aspect of the show’s preparation, and she offers warm praise to the curators, Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker, in her introduction, calling the experience “the most profoundly fulfilling collaboration of my life.”

With its constant interplay of closeness and distancing, its emotional heat and intellectual coolness, Piper’s work can seem difficult at times, but rewards the kind of immersion that the MOMA show permits — ideally over several visits. The generous space the museum has allotted to the show, which spreads across the whole sixth floor, gives both the works and the viewer room to breathe.

For Piper’s devotees, this show has been a long time coming. I asked three of them — art historian John Bowles, author of the first monograph on Piper; pianist Jason Moran, who has collaborated with Piper; and social practice artist Chloë Bass, who considers Piper her chief inspiration, to describe how she changed their lives, and to pick a few favorites. 

JOHN BOWLES, associate professor of African American Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author of Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (2011):
At first I was thinking about Piper in the context of several other conceptual and performance artists. But I ended up writing my first book just about her, because the more research I did, the more important and challenging I found her work to be. Whereas with the others, I got to a point where I felt like I’d figured it out. With her works, there’s an incredibly intense engagement with important moral questions about how we judge each other, how we present ourselves to other people, but mostly about how other people judge us based on what they think they see in us.

JASON MORAN, jazz pianist, composer, and interdisciplinary artist; collaborated with Piper on his album Artist in Residence (2006), and often works with visual artists including Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, and Kara Walker:
When I was introduced to her work, fourteen years ago, it became central because it demanded an understanding from within: that I as the artist would have to understand, and not be frightened to share what I thought I understood, my own work, in my own terms, under my own conditions.
And that was a breaking point for me. Because rather than just shouting John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk over and over, it was, “Wait a minute now: There has to be a reorganization of why we do this.” For me Adrian shows up in this dense body of work, where she really understands her craft from multiple levels, and she expresses it in a way that made me want to dive deeper into my own practice, and share that. It was a new testament after working and learning with her.

CHLOË BASS, Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, assistant professor of art at Queens College, CUNY; has a solo exhibition, “The Book of Everyday Instruction,” at the Knockdown Center through June 17:
For me this is just personal. My mother is a visual artist and my father is a philosopher: Those are the poles of my life. And that somebody brings those together but also adds what has been the most resounding element of my own practice, because I come from theater and performance, which is the body, there’s nothing I can’t learn from that. Every time I see Piper’s work I learn, even when I don’t like the works. I’m hoping that I can take where she leaves off in terms of confrontation and continue with an invitation to intimacy that also asks us to try to change how we see, how we are, and how we live. And I don’t think I could do that if these works didn’t exist. It’s that simple. 

Catalysis III (1970)
In an early series of performances, Piper stepped onto the streets of New York in abstract costumes, in which she wore a shirt covered in white paint with a sign marked “Wet Paint,” and moved around the city, including shopping at Macy’s.

BOWLES: On one hand, it’s a project about objectification: She makes a spectacle of herself for other people to interact with — or to avoid interacting with. But in retrospect it’s impossible to think about the work without the context of race. In Catalysis III she wears a shirt covered in white paint, making a monochrome painting of herself. That choice of white makes me think about how much of her work is about whiteness, and about ways in which whiteness is policed in our society. Who gets the privilege, who gets to identify as white, who’s part of the in club?

Bach Whistled (1970)
This work is an audio piece in which Piper whistles several Bach concertos. In her own words: “At the beginning the whistling is relatively strong, clear, and on key. As the performance progresses it becomes weaker, flatter, and more like plaintive cheeping.”

MORAN: Bach is a titan of counterpoint, of melody, a kind of Holy Grail, but we rarely think of his music as casual. Adrian adopts it in an entirely different space, which is in the body. And she reads the melody through her whistling, which is, you know, above-average whistling. She reorganizes Bach that way. And that’s pivotal to me. Conservatory students need to understand songs in their repertoire like that — as central to the body rather than central to the canon. In the exhibition, the piece is set against the graph paper works she was making at the time. And Bach isn’t consistent the way graph paper is. She places Bach in that scope of the grid, and everything else oozes around it.

The Mythic Being (multiple works, 1973–75)
A wigged and mustached male-presenting character that Piper imagined in 1973 and deployed in multiple settings: walking down the street in spontaneous performances; as the subject of photo projects; and as a kind of alter ego issuing various challenges and pronouncements. She retired the character in 1975.

BOWLES: The work of hers that first grabbed my attention, and was probably many people’s introduction, was her Mythic Being performances. What I found fascinating was the risk that she was taking: She’s altering her appearance and dealing with an audience that isn’t expecting performance, isn’t expecting artwork. And the performances really weren’t documented — the photos were made for creating other artworks, not to document the original performances. So we have to imagine it. She changes her appearance to look like a man, and in her writing she talks about feeling a certain freedom she doesn’t have as a woman, how she can walk around the streets of New York and not get catcalled, and imagine the freedom that men feel in their everyday lives. She writes of a certain kind of sexual liberation that she feels because she doesn’t have to be herself in the way people might expect her to be.

A Tale of Avarice and Poverty (1985)
A photograph and text work that tells a complex family history centering on Piper’s grandmother and mother, and their alienation and distance from men in the family.

BASS: What I love about this, as someone who also works with family archival materials, is the challenge to think about how we write the people that we love into being. In this same period, in the 1980s, she’s making all these political self-portraits, which are also great works, but here she takes it away from herself and starts to imagine how this all came to be. I have no idea how much of this story about her grandmother is true or how much of it is fabricated. I don’t know when the picture is from — or is it even really her grandmother? In a way it doesn’t matter. The structure of the image to the pieces of text, the spaces that it builds, allows you to understand with a great deal of tenderness that this person has been positioned in a way that she did not choose. And that invites us to understand that we may be doing that to others, and that others are doing that to us.

My Calling (Card) #1 (1986–90)
One of a series of business cards that Piper imagined and printed to hand out to people making casual racist comments at social events or to importuning men at bars, in lieu of having to speak to them directly.

BOWLES: I imagine it would be difficult to receive one of these cards. But there’s a video of a discussion where someone asked Adrian what it’s like to give one of these cards, and she said it’s devastating. Because people will assume she’s being aggressive by pointing out someone else’s racism. Still, what is so powerful about the work is how it tries to help the person who has made the racist comments understand their responsibility in perpetuating racism, and the responsibility to work harder. And by having batches of these cards printed each time the work is shown, she’s spreading the work exponentially. Anyone who wants to use these cards can use them. Lots of people have emulated this work, because the concept is so simple yet the gesture is so profound.

Safe #1-4 (1990)
An installation in which happy group photographs of Black people in various celebratory settings are placed in the four corners of a room, conveying presence while assuring the viewer that he or she is safe.

MORAN: One part of what Adrian pulls out is that this work is central to everyone, it’s not just specific to any group of people. For me in that room, with these four pieces on the wall, it’s in a museum space but she just keeps sending the reminders that you’re not in there alone. Those photographs look a lot like pictures I have at home, or images I saw as a kid — you know, Black folk going skiing. It’s normalized within my understanding of who we are as people, and how comfortable we are in our environment. But the museum environment is another space. Adrian is raising the temperature, but always very calmly. It’s never shouting, it’s almost like a proposition to you, a reminder. I first saw this work years ago, and on seeing it again now, it still needs to be said. It’s a simple humanity that she’s demanding, in her very quiet way.

Ashes to Ashes (1995)
A work that pairs an archival photograph of a couple — Piper’s parents—with a dense and harrowing text about the later years of their marriage when they faced decline and death from smoking-related diseases. Piper made the work after learning that a show she was to take part in was sponsored by Philip Morris, the tobacco company.

BASS: So much of Piper’s self-presentation is so controlled. Just look at the arrangement of this text. As a person who also spends a lot of time arranging text, this is a strong choice that I probably wouldn’t have the courage to make. You have the two figures of the parents, like twin towers, but also the two frames of the piece, almost as another twin towers. You can imagine that continuing to echo out: What is the next thing, where this becomes one tower in the following arrangement? And those parameters are different in each setting, depending on whether you’re experiencing the work in a book, in the way the exhibition is designed, or out in the world.

Adrian Moves to Berlin (2007)
A video performance, projected at MOMA on a large screen, in which Piper is dancing in a plaza in Berlin, while numerous people walk by and watch, though no one joins her.

BOWLES: When I was writing my book and talking with Adrian, it was the tail end of her fights with Wellesley College, and when she moved to Germany. I have the sense that she felt restrained; that it was becoming difficult for her to make the kind of work she needed to do. And I love this video because it seems like such an expression of joy and freedom. I get the sense that this move to Berlin has been incredibly liberating. She’s found intellectual freedom and a place that’s more welcoming, where she found more respect than in America. That speaks to the importance of this exhibition as well, where her retrospective is getting an entire floor at MOMA, one of our most important museums. And watching this video of her dancing in the square, it’s almost like she’s extending an invitation to all of us, to join her in intellectual freedom and ecstasy. 

‘Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through July 22