Adrian Piper’s Massive MoMA Survey Will Force You to Face Your Prejudices

Antwaun Sargent
Apr 9, 2018 4:22PM

Adrian Piper, Everything #2.8, 2003. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

In the fall of 1973, the conceptual artist Adrian Piper—sporting an Afro wig, a fake black moustache, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses—refashioned herself into a light-skinned black man. In the guise of this persona, which she called the “Mythic Being” (1973–75), Piper roamed the streets of New York and later Cambridge, Massachusetts, uttering “mantras”: lines Piper memorized from her teenage diary. The performance toyed with the public’s entrenched gender- and race-based privileges, their clichés and assumptions. Saying things like “I embody everything you most hate and fear,” Piper caught the attention of those who would see their own reflection in her round frames.

The seminal project lasted a few years before Piper retired the drag act in 1975. The resulting photographs, drawings, posters, and other works are mounted in a new Museum of Modern Art retrospective, “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016.” Comprised of over 290 works, the show underscores how confrontation is a central point of her overture. (Case in point: In 1995, when the artist learned that the cigarette giant Phillip Morris was a sponsor of “1965–1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, she demanded the museum show Ashes to Ashes, a 1995 photo-and-text work that details how her parents struggled and ultimately died from smoking-related cancers. The museum declined, and Piper later withdrew from the show.)


At MoMA, works such as Black Box/White Box (1992), The Humming Room (2012), and 2013’s Imagine (Trayvon Martin) ask us to do what many contemporary works that call out inequality and hatred do not: act. In doing so, the exhibition does much to rightly remind viewers of Piper’s legacy as a first-rate thinker who “reformed conceptual practice to include personal subjectivity—of herself, her audience, and the publics in general,” as noted by the jury that awarded her the Golden Lion Award for best artist at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

The earliest works on view here showcase an artist enamored of the rational and the quasi-mathematical, but still interested in play and experimentation. In 1966, Piper’s studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York City led her to form a friendship with Sol LeWitt, who influenced the artist in ways that are evidenced by the geometric wall sculpture Protruded Rectangle Canvas (1967), and Street Works (1969), a set of Fluxus-like instructions that sought to get the public involved in examining space, color, and form. Much of the work in the exhibition, which spans the entire sixth floor of the museum as well as its atrium—MoMA has never given a living artist this much space to exhibit—is informed by Conceptualism, Minimalism, and Piper’s own study of philosophy (she received a doctorate degree in the field from Harvard University in 1981).

Piper, with a dose of pitch-perfect humor, engages in what seem like scientific investigations of identity, space, and the social and philosophical possibilities of art as a form of truth telling. She also tirelessly seeks to expose the public’s passive acceptance of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Free #2 (1989) is comprised of two poster-size appropriated images—one of a lynched black man with the words “land of the free” written across his neck, the other of a man being attacked by a police dog (“home of the brave”). The piece calls into question America’s ever-present history of brutality and surveillance of its minority citizens—something the population and its governing institutions, by Piper’s reckoning, tacitly accepts. (Piper moved to Berlin in 2005, where she established the Adrian Piper Research Archive. In 2006, after discovering she was listed as a suspicious traveler by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, she went into a self-imposed exile, and has not returned to the States.) Pretend #1 (1990)—a group of eight images of black men, including Martin Luther King Jr.—speaks to the country’s complicity in this status quo. Each image is paired with one word from a sentence that Piper returns to again and again in her work: “Pretend not to know what you know.”

In Cornered (1988), a haunting video installation, Piper invites us to sit in a setting that recalls one of the many classrooms she has taught in over the years (in 1987, the artist became the first African-American woman to receive academic tenure in philosophy in the United States). Piper appears on a small TV screen, declaring “I’m black” in a mild-mannered, sarcastic tone. She goes on to explain that this revelation may shock viewers because the artist could easily pass as white. Indeed, the notion of passing and the ridiculousness of racial categorization, in various ways, runs throughout Piper’s practice, from the self-explanatory Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981) to a 2012 work in which she satirically recasts herself as “neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey.”

The exhibition is further laced with pointed attempts to upset racial and gender norms, like Piper’s late-1980s series “My Calling (Card) #1 (Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties).” A red sign—“JOIN THE STRUGGLE TAKE SOME FOR YOUR OWN USE”—encourages visitors to take one of three cards intended to address sexual harassment or racist behavior. “Do not touch, tap, pat, stroke, prod, pinch, poke, grobe or grab me,” reads one. Another card is intended to be given to a friend who has ignorantly made a hateful comment: “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, 1975. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

“One of the reasons for making and exhibiting a work is to induce a reaction or change in the viewer,” Piper wrote in 1970, a sentiment that is quoted in the show’s introductory wall text. With that goal in mind, many of Piper’s works can seem like psychological thought experiments dressed up as artworks—like Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems (1980), a wooden environment featuring four lightboxes bearing the faces of black men. Piper’s recorded voice recites previous viewer's reactions to the photographs, laying bare their private racial anxieties. Vote/Emote (1990), a row of black wooden structures that recall voting booths, includes blank notebooks on which museumgoers are meant to respond to various prompts, like listing “the fears of how we might treat you.” The following pages are scrawled with honest reactions: “Like I shouldn’t be believed”; “not like the queen I am”; “like I’m only here because of affirmative action.”

“A Synthesis of Intuitions” will certainly be a wildly different experience for white visitors versus visitors of color; many pieces are contingent on their audiences. For instance, in Close to Home (1987), Piper poses a series of choice questions below appropriated images of friendly-looking black people: “Do you have a black colleague at your place of employment?” “Have you ever had a sexual relationship with a black person?” Meanwhile, we hear Piper’s own recorded voice as she apologizes, in a mocking tone, for prying: “I just want to know.”

One of the exhibition’s final artworks is a participatory piece that underscores Piper’s intent to instigate change, as well as hold viewers accountable. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 (2013) is comprised of three reception desks staffed by administrators. Visitors can volunteer to sign a literal contract with the artist: “I, the undersigned, hereby certify that I will always (absent uncontrollable Acts of God) do what I say I am going to do.” It’s further proof that Piper wants us not only to look, feel, or think—but to act.

Antwaun Sargent