“Catalysis III. Documentation of the performance”,1970Photographs by Rosemary Mayer. Collection Thomas Erben, New York. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

Why artist Adrian Piper is one of the most innovative minds of our time

With her show ongoing at New York’s MoMA, we explore how the conceptual artist has revolutionised art history for 50 years

In 1970, a young conceptual artist boarded a peak hour train in New York in clothes that had been soaked in eggs, vinegar, and fish oil for a week. In the same series of performances, she walked around Central Park with helium-filled Mickey Mouse balloons tied to her ears and travelled on a bus with a bath towel stuffed in her mouth. Catalysis (1970-73) is one of Adrian Piper's earliest sets of street performances aimed at testing public perception, and it's a series that would set the tone for the unabashed way in which the artist would revolutionise conceptualism over her 50-year career. 

Born in New York in the late 40s, Piper began exhibiting her work internationally at the age of 20, and graduated from the School of Visual Arts at 21 with a Fine Art degree focusing on painting and sculpture. As an artist, Piper is deeply personal and complex, and her far-reaching oeuvre extends across photography, drawing, sculpture, immersive installation, literature, and performance. Through these mediums, she introduced American politics into minimalism, and themes of race and gender into conceptual art, which she addresses with deeply personal and intuitive accounts of the human condition through her experiences as a woman of colour. Above all, Piper has completely owned the idea of direct action within art: the powerful energy of all of her works intending to spark action in viewers about their perceptions of social constructs and to use this understanding to change the world. 

Honouring the incredible impact Piper has had on the world so far is New York’s MoMA with its current show, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016: a 50-year retrospective exhibition on the artist's work, running until 21 July. As expected, the show is as layered as Piper's portfolio. It features over 290 works that take up the entire sixth floor of the museum – this show being the first time an entire floor of MoMA has been devoted to a living artist.

In celebration of Piper's retrospective at MoMA, here is everything you need to know about her.

ONE OF HER EARLIEST WORKS DIRECTLY ADDRESSED THE AMERICAN MILITARY

Adrian Piper began creating in 1965 with a set of LSD Paintings (1965-67). Three years later, she was asserting the skill that she would come to own for the rest of her career: direct action. No matter what medium or message, Piper’s work is convicted to generating active change.

In 1968, the American military caused an accidental gas leak at Dugway Proving Ground in the Utah desert near Salt Lake City, killing 6,400 nearby sheep. It was one of many events that occurred as a result of the desert being exploited for militaristic pursuit in post World War II America. Despite its consequences, the military refused to take responsibility for the leak. However its denial was followed by an information leak that led politicians and health officials to demand further investigation. Piper immediately reacted to by creating “Parallel Grid Proposal for Dugway Proving Grounds(1968). The work was a proposal to build a large minimalist structure above the town of Dugway that would be connected to a telephone to inform nearby residents via loudspeaker any time the affected area was going to be used as a test site. Here, we see a piece of art in direct conversation with a public and its politics. In this sense, Adrian Piper introduced explicit American political themes into minimalist art.

SHE INTRODUCED ISSUES OF RACE AND GENDER INTO CONCEPTUAL ART

Conceptualism refers to any piece of art where the idea behind the work is more important than the finished product itself. While the movement is heralded by mind rather than matter, it remained largely focused on the parameters of art itself, with many artists using the movement to question ‘what is art’ rather than ‘what can art do for our social and political world?’ It was Adrian Piper that enforced this question by introducing and addressing issues of race and gender into a largely white, and male, conceptual art movement. The introduction of these themes began in 1970, when Piper produced Catalysis (1970-73): a set of seven conceptual street performances.

In Catalysis, Piper uses strange and unusual behaviour to spark a reaction from her public onlookers and to further explore how defined and restricted humans are by public order and rules. For example, in “Catalysis I”, Piper walked the streets in clothes that had been soaked in eggs, milk, vinegar, and cod oil for a week. She even wore the clothing on a train in peak hour. “Catalysis I” was intended to see how the public would react to someone deemed ‘unwashed’ or ‘repulsive’. In “Catalysis III”, the artist walked down the street and around a Macy’s department store with a sign on her body saying ‘wet paint’, just like a freshly painted handrail. Many would have witnessed Piper and been intrigued to touch the board to see if the paint was actually fresh or not, but no one did because of society’s restraints.

By definition, catalysis is a scientific term that refers to the acceleration of a chemical reaction by a catalyst. In Piper’s body of work, this definition is brought to life because the artist uses absurd behaviour to see how quickly she can spark a reaction in her onlookers, especially as a woman of colour in early 1970s America.

Mythic Being (1973-75) was Piper’s next performance. In 1973, the artist dressed in drag as a working class, light-skinned black man by sporting an Afro wig, a fake moustache, and a pair of round sunglasses. In her new persona, she strolled the streets of New York, and later Massachusetts, muttering mantras to herself that were actually lines Piper remembered from her teenage diary, for example, “I embody everything you most hate and fear.” The reaction from the public varied. This work was aimed at challenging fixed racial assumptions and cliches by eliciting real reactions in people from a fake persona, making people question their perceptions of race and gender.

CONFRONTATION IS A KEY PART OF HER ARTISTRY

In 2013, recorded footage of Mythic Being was played at an exhibition called “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” at Grey Art Gallery in New York. Feeling that the inclusion of her work and the exhibition as a whole furthered the marginalisation of artists of colour, Piper requested that her work be removed from the show. This action shows how the artist is unafraid to confront society about its injustices. Here, it was a case of confronting the art world about its racial prejudices and the tokenisation of artists of colour, and confrontation is a theme that ripples through all five decades of Piper’s work. As the artist explained about her artwork “Four Intruders plus Alarm Systems” in 1980:  “My interest is to fully politicise the existing art-world context, to confront you here and now with the presence of certain representative individuals who are alien and unfamiliar to that context in its current form, and to confront you with your defence mechanisms against them. ”

In 1990, Adrian Piper created “Safe #1-4”: a multimedia installation that uses photography and typography to confront society’s deep-rooted race issues. In each corner of the room, Piper placed images of smiling African and African Americans from magazines. Each image is overlaid with red text and slogans such as “We are among you”, and “We are around you”. In the centre of the room plays an audio recording of Piper performing a viewer’s reaction to the installation. “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable with this. I mean, of course, I appreciate the artist’s good intentions. I really do. But I am just having a lot of trouble with this piece.” Here the audio and visual combination confronts the viewer’s inner reality and forces them to question their own perceptions of race. “Piper’s work makes no concessions either to its audience or to its subjects,” explains MoMA curator Christophe Cherix. “‘Safe #1-4’ is a transformative experience. You’ll leave it a different person than you entered it.”

In 1995, Piper was set to participate in a show called “1965–1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. When she heard that the show was sponsored by tobacco goliath Phillip Morris, the artist demanded the museum show her series Ashes to Ashes: a multimedia work that illuminated how her parents struggled and died from smoking-induced cancers, through a series archival photographs and deeply personal text. When the museum rejected her work, Piper withdrew from the show. It is this conviction to her artistry, and herself, that makes Adrian Piper one of the most revolutionary artists of our time: this exact energy is what modern art needs if it is to advocate actively and directly for social and political progress.

THE FIGURE IS FOREVER PRESENT IN HER WORK

Just as confrontation is a running theme in Piper’s work, so is the figure, but not in an overt sense or an exploration of it. Rather, the figure is used as a tool (just like a paintbrush or a camera) to make Piper’s work. In her many conceptual performances in the 1970s, the body is transformed into an object of sculpture as she adorns it with her artistic concepts. In Mythic Being, she adorns her body with racial stereotypes against middle-aged black men, and in Catalysis, with the ‘bad’ behaviour dictated by social constructs so her form serves as a canvas in both works. In the 1980s, Piper used her form to produce Funk Lessons (1982-84), a collaborative performance series where she invited groups of people to learn funk in a class lead by the artist. In this work, with every swift move, Piper uses the figure to explore and celebrate black culture through music. “(Dance) is a collective and participatory means of self-transcendence,” Piper told Archiving The City in 2010, “and social union in black culture along with many dimensions, and is so often much more fully integrated into daily life. Thus it is based on a system of symbols, cultural meanings, attitudes and patterns of movement that one must directly experience in order to understand fully.”

SHE ALWAYS DIRECTLY ADDRESSES THE AUDIENCE

It’s rare that you can enter a one-on-one dialogue with an artist through their work. But it’s Adrian Piper’s deeply personal, deeply thought out approach to art that enables this. Her works touch you, not a collective public or an anonymous crowd, but you, personally, as a viewer. You enter a discussion with your internal reality on the themes of race and gender addressed in her works, begging questions like ‘what does this mean?’, ‘why is this discrimination occurring?’, ‘what is my relation to it?’, and most importantly, ‘how can I stop it?’ As Piper explains in Talking to Myself: The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object in 1974: “One reason for making and exhibiting a work is to induce a reaction or change in the viewer... the work as such is nonexistent except when it functions as a medium of change between the artist and viewer.” 

In this sense, her works are probing machines for inciting action. For example, “The Humming Room” (2018) in her 2018 MoMA show allows the viewer to converse with the artist through her work. In one of the passageways, there stands a guard who won’t let you pass the next room unless you hum. You are engaging with the art because you have to make a decision. Here you are also in direct contact with the artist, as her work makes you question the way in which we follow the rules made for us in society. This quality of Piper’s work is a reminder that art is not passive or objective, but active and subjective.

SHE RE-MADE HER OWN WIKIPEDIA PAGE

Have you ever read a Wikipedia page only to figure out it’s all false? Imagine if the page was written about you and the whole world was perceiving things about you that were untrue? This happened to Adrian Piper. In 2013, the artist decided she didn’t agree with her Wikipedia page because it was full of inaccuracies, and its standards were lower than that of a real academic encyclopedia. After reaching out to the website with a request to delete the page, they just replaced it with a new one which Piper soon too realised was false. So, she created her own.

Housed on her website, the page offers a detailed insight into the artist’s biography and trajectory. “I wish I could tell you that anything as interesting as art was on my mind when I reconstructed that page,” Piper told Artnet News. “Unfortunately it was nothing but a simple act of desperation. The factual errors in the official Wikipedia page were so numerous and glaring – and so incompatible with traditional standards of good scholarship – that it would have been a waste of time to try to get that right. The reconstructed page was a last resort.” It’s this direct action that makes Piper’s work permanently current.

SHE IS COLLECTING JARS OF HER HAIR AND SKIN FOR MoMA

In 1985, Adrian Piper started creating her ongoing work, “What Will Become of Me”, that is set to be the last artwork she contributes when she dies. It’s made up of a collection of honey jars filled with the artist’s hair and nails that she has been contributing since the work’s conception. When she’s cremated, her ashes will also be added to the collection. In addition to the jars are two documents. One is a signed statement that details the tough year Piper had when she made the work in 1985: a depleting marriage, the death of her father, and a rejected tenure from her teaching position at the University of Michigan, where she had been appointed an assistant professor of Philosophy. The other document is a declaration to donate the work to MoMA. In a widely pale and male art context, Piper’s declaration within this work is a conviction to the presence of black women in the museum, with a literal insertion of the artist’s body. The work also addresses humanity’s uncertain grapplings with death, as addressed in the title. In “What Will Become of Me”, the quirky, convicted, revolutionary essence of Adrian Piper beams, and through this work, it will live on forever.

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 is on at MoMA until 21 July. You can find out more here

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