American Performance Artist, Installation Artist, and Photographer
New York City, New York
Summary of Adrian Piper
Who are you? How do others see you and how do you define your own identity? These are the key questions at the heart of Adrian Piper's practice. Rising to prominence as a pioneering Conceptual, Minimalist and Feminist artist in the New York art scene during the early 1970s, Piper's work raises often uncomfortable questions about racial politics and identity, engages in social critique, and deploys concepts from her parallel career as a philosopher.
Her work is often provocative, and asks her audience to confront truths about themselves and the society they live in. This practice has included performances and street interventions, paintings and sculpture, and events and objects less easily defined by conventional art historical terms. She works across disciplines, forms and conceptual frameworks, positioning her practice as a single endeavour of multiple parts.
- Piper's political convictions and strategies are often communicated through an engagement with autobiography and/or everyday life, a strategy which speaks to her interest in philosophical notions of the self. Her experiences with LSD as a young artist, instances of everyday racism and institutional marginalisation, and personal tragedy have all formed the basis of a different suite of works or series of performances.
- Her work most often asks questions about identity and self, perhaps most notably around the question of race. By drawing on her experience as a person of mixed racial heritage her work interrogates the assumptions made about identity as it relates to skin color, revealing the underlying racism and hypocrisy of Western society, particularly in the United States.
- As a female artist and scholar, Piper's work often also interrogates her experiences of sexism and misogyny. This provided an inspiration for a slightly later generation of independent and multi-disciplinary female artists (including Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman), a legacy that has only recently come to be acknowledged as significant in the development of this kind of work.
- Piper's work and personal life are blurred, and she maintains a commitment to the significance of symbolic action in her interactions with artistic and educational institutions, authority figures and governments. Perhaps most indicative of this conviction is her insistence that she would not return to the United States after some time abroad until her name had been removed from the "watch list" of potentially subversive passengers.
- Piper is committed to working across multiple disciplines and areas of scholarship. She maintains her artistic practice alongside a career as an academic within the subject area of philosophy, and sees the two roles as informing each other. Her foundation (The Adrian Piper Research Archive) works to support other interdisciplinary scholars who might similarly struggle to balance two concurrent and interrelated careers.
Biography of Adrian Piper
Adrian Piper was born in New York City in 1948 and grew up in a middle-class home in Washington Heights, near the Harlem area of Manhattan. Her father, Daniel Robert Piper, was a lawyer and her mother an administrator in the English Department of the Open Admissions Program at the City College of New York. Piper describes her racial background as 'mixed, like all Americans'. She talks of her father as having a mixed heritage derived from white and light-skinned black property owners, and of her mother as descending from planter-class Jamaican immigrants. This created a complex genealogy she describes as, "1/32 Malagasy (Madagascar), 1/32 African of unknown origin, 1/16 Igbo (Nigeria), and 1/8 East Indian (Chittagong, India [now Bangladesh]), in addition to having predominantly British and German family ancestry". Piper remembers her upbringing as warm and nurturing, writing, "(I) grew up physically inviolate, unable even to imagine the possibility of a breach to my physical integrity." As an adult, Piper credited her unflinching self-confidence in the face of racist and sexist marginalization to this solid grounding, firmly stating: "I do not need your help. I was loved."
Important Art by Adrian Piper
Angry and jagged forms in acrid yellow, outlined with black and red, expand outwards from a central female figure, forming a tight web that seems to mutate across the surface of the painting. The nude figure in the centre of the canvas is Adrian Piper herself, seen in the reflection of a mirror. Her pose resembles that of a classical female nude, yet this similarity is partially undone by her reduction to a stark black and yellow silhouette.
In around 1965, just as she was beginning her fine art degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Piper experimented with the still-legal drug LSD, which she took about six times over 6 months as part of a personal mission to go "beyond the surface of things". Her strange, hallucinogenic experiences were recorded in the painting series LSD Paintings, made between 1965 and 1967, which document the experience of the drug through forms reminiscent of the then fashionable Op Art, with geometric shapes which seem to swell in and out of the painting in an approximation of the merging of real and imaginary during a trip. Piper made these paintings as an attempt to capture the experience of psychedelic drugs in order to retain and communicate the potential of LSD to teach people about themselves. Piper wrote about observing herself and her experiences "from the inside out", and here brings together both her inner experiences with the drug and the viewpoint of an outsider looking on as she disappears into a trance-like state.
These early paintings are often viewed as separate from her later, more Conceptual works of art, yet as writer Craig Hubert points out in the Observer, "...there can be found in these early drawings and paintings the emergence of a lifelong preoccupation with the mutability of identity, a self-exploration that looks both inward and outward, which is a hallmark of the psychedelic experience." This dual approach, where Piper sees herself both through her own eyes and those of an outside observer, would become a central focus as her practice developed, which as Hubert points out, "allows both a sense of removal and a deeper embrace". The loss of subjectivity through psychoactive drugs also has a long history in Piper's parallel career of philosophy, with the notion of being "outside yourself" brought about by LSD in particular raising interesting philosophical questions about the constitution of self through conscious perception.
In this photograph a young Adrian Piper walks through the streets of New York City wearing a sign emblazoned with the warning "WET PAINT." The work is one of a series of performances made between 1970-3 under the series title Catalysis. In this suite of works the artist takes a series of direct actions aimed at challenging and antagonising her relationships with her audience; here she wore clothing coated in sticky white emulsion paint and took on ordinary activities including a shopping trip to Macy's Department Store.
Piper entices viewers to come in and touch her to find out whether or not the paint is really wet, provoking varied reactions once they realise that it is. The interaction represents a break with the normal parameters of social conduct, introducing an element of danger and the unknown to everyday life. As with many other examples of performance art, the reaction and response from the audience (whether traditionally constituted through attendance at an event or by simply being on the street at the same time Piper walks through) is as much part of the performance as the action itself.
Throughout the Catalysis series Piper questions the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, and documents what happens when they are transgressed. Other public actions included walking the streets and travelling on the train in peak hour in clothes that had been soaked in eggs, milk, vinegar and cod for a week, testing the public's reaction to someone 'unwashed', and travelling around the city 'silenced' with a towel stuffed in her mouth. The title of the series of works makes reference to a chemical reaction triggered by a catalyst, with Piper's actions becoming the trigger to spark a reaction between herself and her audience. Throughout the 1960s and 70s Piper established a reputation for causing deliberate provocation amongst her viewers, actions that influenced a generation of artists that followed including the Young British Artists movement and later performance artists such as William Pope L.
In this monochrome, drawn-on photograph, a shadowy figure emerges from the darkness wearing dark sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, captioned in the top corner with the phrase, "I embody everything you most hate and fear." The figure in the image is Piper, in drag as her male alter ego 'Mythic Being', whose identity she assumes through wearing a fake moustache, afro wig and sunglasses.
Piper created the character of "Mythic Being" over a period of two years between 1973 and 1975. Disguising herself as a light-skinned and working class black man, Piper wandered around the streets of New York reciting various mantras that were lifted from her teenage diary, including the caption seen here, and various other angst-ridden phrases including, "surrounded and constrained", and "God please give me the strength to withdraw - I can't be hurt anymore - I've been hurt too much. Please help me preserve myself". Her performances were documented through photographs, drawings and videos, including this work. Many of the different forms of documentation and accompanying information (such as museum wall labels) also tracked public reactions to her character and his behaviour.
Piper's black male character deliberately embodied a marginalised, outsider position, which drew attention to the difficulties faced by people who share those aspects of identity in their everyday life. Yet Piper also found in the role a certain emancipation, as writer John P. Bowles explains: "Suspended between difference and identification, the Mythic Being becomes, in Piper's account, a paradoxical figure of liberation. Dressed as a man of uncertain race, the artist could act in ways that, as a black woman, she was expected not to". Piper elaborated on this in a description of her behaviour, writing, "I swagger, stride, lope, lower my eyebrows, raise my shoulders, sit with my legs wide apart on the subway..." In breaking out of her usual persona Piper highlights the restrictive ways women, and particularly African American women, were expected to behave. The tension that comes from Piper's assumption of this role, plays against both her gender and the way she was usually perceived by people of different ethnicities in her day-to-day life. This pioneering break with prescribed gender and racial norms and assertion of her own right to define how she is perceived influenced a raft of later artists, including Cindy Sherman's theatrical photographs, Sarah Lucas' "ladette" posturing and Glenn Ligon's powerful text art.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Adrian Piper
- Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions: 1965-2016By Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, David Platzker
- Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and EmbodimentBy John P. Bowles
- Adrian Piper: A ReaderBy Cornelia Butler and David Platzker
- Adrian PiperBy Claudia Barrow and Elizabeth MacGregor
- Adrian Piper: Retrospective 1965-2000 (Issues in cultural theory)By Maurice Berger
- Talking to myself: The ongoing autobiography of an art objectOur PickBy Adrian Piper
- Out of Order, Out of Sight, Vol. 1: Selected Writings in Meta-ArtBy Adrian Piper and Roger Conover
- Meta-arteBy Adrian Piper and P. Martore
- Escape to Berlin: A Travel MemoirOur PickBy Adrian Piper
- Adrian Piper : Textes d'oeuvres et essaisBy Adrian Piper
- Colored PeopleBy Adrian Piper
- Adrian PiperOur PickBy Begum Yasar and Aliza Shvarts
- Adrian Piper. Käthe-Kollwitz-Preis 2018
- Adrian Piper, reflections, 1967-1987: Alternative Museum, New York City, April 18-May 30, 1987, travelling to Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia, Nov. 21-December 19, 1987Our PickBy Adrian Piper
- Adrian Piper Seit 1965: Metakunst Und KunstkritikBy Christoph Haidacher
- 'I Still Do Believe They Want Me Dead': An Interview with Adrian PiperOur PickBy Agata Waleczek / Frieze Magazine / September 10, 2018
- Adrian Piper in Her Own WordsBy David Carrier / Hyperallergic / November 10, 2018
- Adrian PiperBy Frazer Ward / Frieze Magazine / March 3, 1999
- Adrian Piper: The Thinking CanvasBy Holland Cotter / The New York Times / April 19, 2018
- Why artist Adrian Piper is one of the most innovative minds of our timeOur PickBy Lexi Manatakis / Dazed Digital Magazine / May 25, 2018
- Everyone's Problem: Adrian Piper Tackles the Complexities of Race Relations Head-OnBy Artspace Editors / Artspace Magazine / December 30, 2015
- Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965 - 2016By Nicole Miller / Brooklyn Rail Magazine / May 1, 2018
- Open Letters to Adrian PiperBy Adelita Husni-Bey, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Aaron Flint Jamison, Pope.L, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Dread Scott / Frieze Magazine / May 1, 2018
- From the Archives: Adrian Piper's Sly Subversions of Power StructuresBy The Editors of ARTnews / Artnews / April 13, 2018
- Outside the Comfort ZoneBy Jillian Steinhauer / New Republic Magazine / May 30, 2018
- Fuck It, Let's Boogie (or Everything Will Be Taken Away): Adrian Piper's A Synthesis of Intuitions: 1965-2016By Jessica Lanay / Bomb Magazine / July 9, 2018
- Are you Being Preached to? Again? How Adrian Piper's Meta-Art Imagined a Socially Engaged Art WorldBy Anastasia Tuazon / Temporary Art Review / July 19, 2018
- Adrian Piper, Then and AgainBy Isaiah Matthew Wooden / MIT Press Journals / September 4, 2018
- Datebook: 50 years of Adrian Piper, patterns that evoke environment and a performance about slappingBy Carolina A. Miranda / L.A. Times / October 4, 2018
- Everything you need to know about Adrian Piper's conceptual installations before you go and see themBy Kathryn O'Regan / Sleek Magazine / September 25, 2018
- Adrian Piper: Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 31-July 22, 2018By Yaniya Lee / Canadian Art Magazine / July 9, 2018
- Adrian Piper "The Mythic Being" at MAMCO, GenevaElise Lammer and Karima Boudou in conversation / Mousse Magazine
- The Restlessness of Thought: Adrian Piper at MoMABy Nickolas Pappas / Artcritical Magazine / June 5, 2018
- This MoMA Show Asks You to Confront Racism - Both in Strangers and YourselfBy Larissa Pham / Vice Magazine / April 3, 2018
- An interview on the topic of time with artist and philosopher, Adrian Piper, for the Telling Time Projects 2007 - 2014Our PickInterview conducted in Piper's studio in Berlin, Germany in 2009, Interview II
- Adrian Piper Artist Talk: What, exactly, is the Idea of Artistic Research? Post Digital Cultures, Lausanne Symposium presented by the Federal Office of Culture (FOC), Switzerland and Les UrbainesOur PickPublished on 6 Dec 2015
- Adrian Piper Artist Talk at the symposium Second Wave Feminism: Unfinished Business, National Academy of Art, OsloApril 3, 2014
- Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 | MoMA LIVE, Museum of Modern Art, New YorkStreamed live on 27 Mar 2018
- Adrian Piper Interview: Rationality and the Structure of the Self, APRA Foundation BerlinPublished on 13 May 2013
- Adrian Piper: Deconstructing Race in the Indexical Present, Created for ART178: Black Aesthetics and the Politics of Representation at Pomona CollegePublished on 15 Dec 2009
- Adrian Piper: The Long View" Symposium | Part I: Voices in Dialogue: Time Travelers, Hammer Museum: Art historians Alexander Alberro and Nizan Shaked offer interpretations of the effect of the times on Piper's workPublished on 10 Oct 2018
- John P. Bowles, author of Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (2011), explains why he chose to study Adrian Piper's work and shares insight into some of her most powerful pieces, Duke University PressPublished on 5 Sep 2012
- Adrian talks about the meaning & purpose of the APRA Foundation Multi-Disciplinary FellowshipPublished on 10 Aug 2016