Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 covers half a century of the conceptual artist and philosopher’s career. It is a retrospective showing that feels firmly rooted in the present, partly because the subject matter Piper is obsessed will never stop being part of our lives, partly because of the aesthetic variation she employs. Born in 1948 and raised in New York, Piper attended private school, went on to the School of Visual Arts, and eventually earned her Ph.D. at Harvard. The artist’s upbringing and background loom large over the content of her work—as a light-skinned black woman, she was often put in the position of “the Other” in these wealthy, educated, and predominately white spaces she moved through. Her presence is a vital part of many of the pieces, the string tying them together, whether it be in her voice, her handwriting, her renderings of herself. But it would be a mistake to write off her work as a result of a chip on her shoulder, or a preoccupation with her own marginalization—the scope is so much broader than that. In a piece from 1971 called Food for the Spirit, she translates the feeling of the self-disappearing while reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into a series of photographs where she seems to fade away into the background.
The show opens with early figurative paintings stacked salon-style on a wall, including youthful self-portraits that reflect the influence of the 60s and psychedelics. The concept of self-portraiture comes up again and again in Piper’s work. She is interested in documenting the shifting nature of identity, the construction of race. Her father had two official birth certificates, one where he was designated white, the other with the label of one-eighth black. In a piece from 2012 titled Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, Piper speaks in the third person in the format of a press release, stating “Adrian Piper has decided to retire from being black. In the future, for professional utility, you may wish to refer to her as The Artist Formerly Known as African-American.
“The idea of art having a social goal, art being part of life, I think Adrian is maybe not the only one, but she’s one of the most singular and powerful voices. And I believe the work is so coherent, for over 50 years, it makes her quite unique in that generation,” said MoMA’s chief curator of drawings and prints, Christophe Cherix.
Featuring almost 300 works and occupying the entire sixth floor of the museum (and the Marron Atrium), the show is exhaustive, sometimes exhausting. But the viewer’s endurance being tested seems to be a part of it, a reflection of who you are and what you bring to your viewing of the show. In an installation called Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma, (1978), the recording of Piper’s voice on loop asks “why do you always seem to end up staring at your own reflection in the glass?” She is referring to the intentionally reflective Plexiglass covering a black and white photo of a group of black people descending the stairs, their direct gazes catching yours as the light shifts with each step you take.
Nearby in The Humming Room (2012), museum-goers are asked to hum a tune, “any tune will do,” as they approach a security guard. You cannot get through the entire exhibition without going through this, I watch about a dozen people participate, some hesitant, some incredibly confident, the guard incredibly upbeat. In another installation, her voice takes on the criticisms she predicts, saying things like “I really don’t need to get hit over the head with this stuff,” “subtle ambiguities would have been so much more effective,” and “the piece gives me no aesthetic space.” Piper knows what you think, and doesn’t necessarily think these statements are wrong. Her awareness of where people are coming from asks you to consider the same.