Berlin-based, American Conceptual artist Adrian Piper has been a pivotal figure in Conceptual Art since its inception. Not only is she a brilliant, unique artist, she also has a brilliant and all-encompassing mind. She is a philosopher – the first tenured African American woman granted a tenured position in the United States at Georgetown University.
In the art world she uses her idea-based artworks to critically enact and render race and gender inequities. The Black experience in America is her subject. Her installations, videos, paintings, drawings, performance, and interactive art have always focused on the slipperiness of racial and gender identity. They explore the ways in which people’s identities get erased from history. In 2015, Piper’s Golden Lion-winning Venice Biennale installation, “The Probably Trust Registry: The Rules of the Fame #1-3” gave viewers the opportunity to pledge to do one of three positive things in their lives.
Born in New York City to two African American, biracial parents, Piper attended an elite private school. She studied art at the School of Visual Arts and then philosophy at the City College of New York from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1974. Continuing in the study of philosophy, she received from Harvard University her M.A. in 1977 and her Ph.D. in 1981. In her studies she focused on Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” which would later inform her art.
Piper taught at Wellesley College, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and University of California San Diego. In 2005, she left the United States in self-professed exile to reside in Berlin after Wellesley terminated her tenured full professorship.
Her artistic career was Conceptual from her early works of text and line, performance art, and interactive art. When she was young, she would hand out cards to passersby to tell them that she was black, and years later she would command viewers to hum when entering a gallery to see her work.
In the early 1970s she made public performances in which she transformed her appearance. She covered herself with with paint in “Catalysis III,” in 1970. In 1973-1975, she dressed as a young African American man – with afro and mustache – in her “Mythic Being” series, merging her male alter ego with language taken from her teenage journals to expose xenophobic fears and racism. In 1975, the Mythic Being’s speech bubble stated, “I EMBODY EVERYTHING YOU MOST HATE AND FEAR.”
For her late 1980s “Vanilla Nightmares” series of charcoal drawings, Piper appropriated pages from the New York Times and added figural scenes that contradicted the papers’s discussion of racial issues. In one picture, she showed the hand of a large, dark figure around the neck of a smaller lighter skinned elderly person. While this picture covered most of the page, Piper left sections visible that talked about white farmers profiting in Zimbabwe, etc. to emphasize that white privilege informed this newspaper in spite of its ambition to report trustworthy information.
She had a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2018 featuring works done over a fifty year period. This exhibit travelled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, ending in January, 2019. It was the most comprehensive West Coast exhibition of her work.
This exhibit started with her early work, 22 psychedelic drawings and paintings inspired by her use of LSD in 1965-1966 when she was a teenager. Human figures meshed with abstract patterns and swirls of bright color. They showed Piper’s desire for altered perception. These youthful works would be the last time color would play an important role in her work. In 1967, she made 35 “Barbie Doll Drawings,” in penciled ink on notebook paper. She rearranged the doll’s body parts and reconstructed the bodies in dozens of surrealistic ways.
In 1981, she drew “”Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features.” The self-portrait looks directly back at us. A viewer is left to decide what her exaggerations would be. My calling (Card)#1” and “My Calling (Card)#2 1986 were text-based works that confronted the reader’s own racist or sexist tendencies. “What It’s Like, What It Is #3 1991 was a large-scale, mixed-media installation addressing racial stereotypes.
Her piece, “Decide Who You Are,” 1992 consists of drawings, photos, and text, including an image of Anita Hill as a child . Her image is placed at the bottom of a large rectangular grid covered in tiny red typed text, which were quotes and comments from the Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings.
Reading Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” led to her Conceptual project “Food for the Spirit” 1971-1997. This work comprised a document of the experience with 14 framed photographs of Piper on the museum’s wall. Near the end of the exhibition is a series of large drawings of words on four large blackboards in the process of being erased. It reads “Everything will be taken away.” The same text is repeated in numerous collages and smaller works, a Conceptual art interpretation of an old ‘vanitas’ motif in Northern European painting.
Piper’s exhibition ended with a video from 2007, “Adrian Moves to Berlin,” in which she is seen dancing alone in Alexanderplatz, the city’s central pedestrian zone. She is lost in her own movement.
For Piper’s Hammer exhibition, the museum partnered with the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) to present Piper’s work “What It’s Like, What It Is #3,” a large-scale, mixed-media installation also addressing racial stereotypes. It was on view from 2018 – January 6, 2019 the same dates as the exhibit at the Hammer.