Adrian Piper - Biography and Legacy
American Performance Artist, Installation Artist, and Photographer
New York City, New York
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."
In Harlem as a young adult Piper was often taunted by black neighbours for her supposedly white appearance and forced to prove her black identity through a "Suffering Test" by telling them her "recent experiences of racism". This was an experience she says made her feel, "... both unjustly accused or harassed, and also remorseful and ashamed at having been the sort of person who could have provoked the accusation."
After attending Riverside Church nursery and kindergarten, Piper moved on to the progressive, New Lincoln School Grammar School and High School, attending classes at the Art Students League. As a teenager she was well read, studying both philosophy and contemporary fiction and developing interests in avant-garde music and film. Her intricate family history and experiences growing up led Piper to focus in part on the absurdities of racial categorisations in American society throughout her later career as an artist.
Early Training and Work
Piper studied sculpture and painting at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, graduating with an associate degree in fine art in 1969. The artist's early student years were formative as a time when she became part of a circle of artists, musicians and writers in downtown Manhattan who shared a desire to "go beyond the surface of things." Piper experimented widely with this group of friends, capturing her psychedelic experiences with the (still-legal) drug LSD in the series LSD Paintings (1965-67). This series afforded her some early gallery shows and success within the art world. In 1965 she remembers that she discovered the transformative potential of yoga, which would become a lifelong practice.
In 1967 Piper became an assistant to the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt after being inspired by his declaration, "the idea becomes the machine to make art". Provoked by this statement, and her time working with LeWitt, Piper felt a desire to create predominantly conceptual forms of art. Between 1967 and 1970 the work she made took the form of maps, diagrams, photographs and descriptive language, drawing on the meditative language of yoga to explore the "indexical present" of human perception and consciousness.
Continuing to work as an artist, Piper embarked on a parallel career as an academic in the following years. She first earned a BA with Research Honors in Philosophy and a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Musicology from the City College of New York in 1974, before moving on to an MA and PhD in Philosophy in 1981, as well as studying Kant and Hegel with Dieter Henrich at the University of Heidelberg in 1977 and 1978. As a student Piper was bright, confident and, by her own admission, a "misguided troublemaker", prone to questioning perceived authority. She remembers that she "behaved uncontrollably [...] raising my hand every five minutes in every class meeting to innocently request clarification [...] dumfounding my instructors."
Throughout the 1970s Piper first began to explore the ideas that would come to define her oeuvre, delving into the frequently controversial and polarizing topics of xenophobia, race, and gender. She often did this through autobiographical content or self-portraiture. In the interactive sound work Stand In #1 (1974), Piper recorded an intimate dialogue with her boyfriend, Rob Rubinowitz, and played it in the gallery, while in the performance series Catalysis (1970-72) Piper provoked members of the public by challenging socially acceptable behavioural norms through activities that included travelling with a towel stuffed in her mouth, or walking through the streets covered in wet paint. Piper took these ideas a stage further with a two-year investigation into female drag, dressing as a male alter-ego referred to as "Mythic Being". To do this she donned a fake moustache and afro wig in order to embody, as she put it "everything you [society] most despise and fear."
In the 1980s Piper continued to pursue both the academic and artistic strand of her career, taking on philosophy teaching posts in Michigan, Stanford, California, and Georgetown. In 1982 Piper married clinical psychologist Jeffrey Ernest Evans, but within three years cracks were beginning to appear in their marriage. In her own words, 1985 was a "bad year", as Piper struggled to secure a teaching post, her father died of cancer, her mother struggled to cope with the loss, and her marriage fell apart. It was in this same year that Piper began the ongoing work of art titled, What Will Become of Me, a collection of honey jars filled with her hair and nails that she continues to update. The work is a pensive consideration of her own mortality, and will only be complete once she is cremated and her ashes have been added to the collection.
At Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1990 Piper became the first African-American woman to be appointed a professor of philosophy in the United States, remaining in that post for the next 15 years. During her time there she specialized in the work of influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant, as well as in the teaching of Eastern philosophical theories. Her parallel artistic practice continued to explore the socio-political sphere of racial prejudice, challenging various preconceived stereotypes through the representation of her own body and those of others. This can be seen in works such as Self Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features (1981) and the photographic series Safe #1-4 (1990). In 1987, Piper and Evans were finally divorced. Later, after she had spent two years caring for her, Piper's elderly mother died in 1994.
On completing a two-year sojourn as a visiting lecturer at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in 2005-7 and also spending time in Berlin, Piper discovered her name was on the Transportation Security Administration's "Suspicious Traveller Watch List". Refusing to return to the United States until her name was removed from the list, her position at Wellesley was terminated in 2008. The situation left Piper filled with deep disappointment, as she explained, "I owe everything I am to my birth, upbringing, and education in the United States. So I would have preferred my achievements to be a source of pride to my country of origin. Unfortunately, it is not set up to tolerate achievements like mine from someone like me, because people like me are not supposed to exist."
Following the loss of her post at Wellesley College Piper emigrated permanently to Berlin, where she continues to live and work, finding the culture of "self-erasure and self-reinvention" a constant source of artistic inspiration. In a recent interview she said that "In Berlin, the layers of meaning, history and culture are infinite. Every day and every encounter is an adventure and every person I pass on the street is an inexhaustible store of memory and tradition." She has not returned to America since 2007.
Within her artistic practice Piper has expanded her subject matter to include Vedic philosophical concepts, which she combines with the themes of loss, desire, and transcendence and her previous focus on personal experience as a catalyst for social reflection. In 2002, Piper founded the Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) as a resource for students, scholars, curators, collectors, and writers. Piper extended the role of the foundation in 2009 to fund the APRA Foundation Multi-Disciplinary Fellowship, a research grant designed for high achievers in two or more fields of scholarship and in 2018 she added the APRA Foundation Berlin Philosophy Dissertation Fellowship, as a research grant to fund cross-cultural courses of study.
Piper published a major two-volume study on Kant in 2008, Rationality and the Structure of the Self, Volume I: The Humean Conception and Rationality and The Structure of the Self, Volume II: A Kantian Conception, a culmination of 34 years' worth of research into the distinctions between the Humean and Kantian conceptions of the self, motivation, and rationality. The Berlin Journal of Philosophy was founded by Piper in 2011 and is still going strong today, a publication that she describes as "as an open-access, peer-reviewed international journal that innovates in adhering strictly to simultaneous policies of blind submission, double-blind review, and anti-plagiarism."
On her 64th birthday, Piper officially announced that she was "retired from being black," uploading an enhanced photograph onto her website where her skin color had been changed from "café au lait" to the shade of "elephant hide". She accompanied the picture with the caption, "Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey, honouring my 1/16th African heritage. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control."
In a further bid to present an accurate public image that aligned to her own sense of identity, in 2013 Piper reacted angrily against her Wikipedia page, which she said "...had apparently not been fact checked", by building a new one on her own website. Details featured on this new page included a breakdown of her ancestral heritage and her artistic and philosophical careers, as well as of her lifelong yoga practice. Piper's self-reconstructed Wikipedia page acts as a confrontational statement against varied inaccuracies that have been published about her and a deliberate move to reassert her own agency. As she explains, "The factual errors in the official Wikipedia page were so numerous and glaring ... that it would have been a waste of time to try to get that right. The reconstructed page was a last resort." Piper's reconstructed page highlights her disagreements with Wikipedia's editorial policy, and lists at its head her exchanges with the website's administrators.
In 2018, Piper published the memoir Escape to Berlin, an intimate portrayal of her life story interspersed with poems and artworks. In 2018 Piper was also awarded a major retrospective at New York's MoMA, on which she observed, "I do not need to have another retrospective ever again, because the MoMA retrospective will never be surpassed."
The Legacy of Adrian Piper
Piper's distinctly confrontational ability to address pertinent topics around racial segregation and stereotyping have established her voice as one which is fearless, powerful, and hugely influential. Her ability to excel in the two distinct fields of visual art and academic philosophy also demonstrates a rare tenacity, while her ongoing support for others to follow her example in doing so through her APRA research grants supports the next generation of interdisciplinary creative voices.
Cornelia Butler, former chief curator of drawing at MoMA, sees Piper's work as representing someone who is "always there, and the work always looks current," adding, "since the '90s, there's a generation of artists whose work is really almost impossible without her". This is particularly true of female artists, with figures as diverse as Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer directly influenced by Piper. Sherman's experimental drag photography reveals the ongoing influence of Piper's work in its representation of distinct and constructed identities, for example. Holzer, and other artists like Barbara Kruger, similarly continue to question prescribed societal roles through confrontational language and imagery in a manner derived at least in part from Piper's pioneering work.
But perhaps Piper's strongest legacy today can be felt through artists of color and/or mixed racial heritage, particularly those whose art raises awareness of cultural divisions or the deeply ingrained racism still prevalent in contemporary society. Notable examples of these artists include Carrie Mae Weems, whose honest photographs of African American family dynamics share similar subject matter to Piper's work in the 1980s and 90s, Lorna Simpson's multi-media autobiographical art and Ellen Gallagher's mixed media collages that question society's "ordering principles". Instances of Piper's influence can also be seen in Kara Walker's intricate silhouettes, and Glenn Ligon's complex, layered language of "intertextuality", or the use of the relation of different texts to each other to create meaning.