Adrian Margaret Smith Piper is an American conceptual artist and philosopher who was born in New York City on September 20, 1948. Piper was influenced by Sol LeWitt and Yvonne Rainer in the late 60s and early 70s. She worked at the Seth Siegelaub Gallery, known for its conceptual art exhibitions, in 1969. In 1970, she exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art's Information and began to study philosophy in college. Piper has said that she was kicked out of the art world during this time for her race and sex. Her work started to address ostracism, otherness, and attitudes around racism. In Berger's Critique of Pure Racism interview, Piper asserted that while she finds analysis of racism praiseworthy, she wants her artwork to help people confront their racist views.
Piper studied art at the School of Visual Arts and graduated with an associate's degree in 1969. Piper then studied philosophy at the City College of New York and graduated with a bachelor's in 1974. Piper received a master's in philosophy from Harvard University in 1977 and her doctorate in 1981. She also studied at the University of Heidelberg. Piper was awarded visual arts fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and 1982, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. Piper taught at Wellesley College, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and University of California, San Diego. She became the first female African-American philosophy professor to receive academic tenure in the United States in 1991. In 2008, for her refusal to return to the United States while listed as a "Suspicious Traveler" on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration Watch List, Wellesley College terminated her tenured full professorship while she was on unpaid leave in Berlin.
The first mention of Piper as an artist in the printed press was in the Village Voice on March 27, 1969, in response to what is also considered her first solo exhibition, her mail art project Three Untitled Projects. The people and institutions to whom she sent her 8 1/2 × 11 inch stapled booklets that comprised the piece were listed on the last page as the "Exhibit Locations". With this project, Piper succeeded in distributing her work on her own terms to an audience of over 150 artists, curators and dealers of her choosing.
In the 1970s, Piper began a series of street performances under the collective title Catalysis, which included actions such as painting her clothes with white paint and wearing a sign that read "WET PAINT" and going to the Macy's department store to shop for gloves and sunglasses; stuffing a huge white towel into her mouth and riding the bus, subway and Empire State Building Elevator; and dousing herself in a mixture of vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver oil and then spending a week moving around New York's subway and bookstores. Catalysis VII involved Piper visiting a museum, chewing gum loudly, and holding a purse full of ketchup. The Catalysis performances were meant to be a catalyst that challenged what constitutes the order of the social field, "at the level of dress, sanity and the distinction between public and private acts." The word "catalysis" describes a chemical reaction caused by a catalytic agent that remains unchanged, and Piper viewed her audience's reaction as the unaffected agent. Piper's Mythic Being series, started in 1973, saw the artist dressed in a wig and mustache and perform publicly as a "third world, working class, overly hostile male." In 2013, NYU's Grey Art Gallery played footage from Piper's 1973 work Mythic Being in the exhibition "Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art". Piper rejected this, and requested that the work be removed from the exhibition, as its inclusion further underlined the marginalization of minority artists and was in direct opposition to the ideals that she fought to inspire in her viewers.
Between 1982 and 1984, Piper staged a series of events advertised as Funk Lessons which invited participants to learn about the dance styles, culture, and history of funk music. Piper located the roots of funk in African tribal music and saw it as integral to the growing presence of black cultural figures in America and the ongoing struggle for equal rights. By exposing diverse audiences to the music of African American counterculture, Piper created a dialogue about the cultural value of dance music and the politics of race and identity. Each "lesson" was advertised on postcards that specifically avoided labeling the event as an work of participatory art. Piper began the lessons by playing samples of music and instructing participants in specific dance moves, while gradually introducing anecdotes of black history and culture into her presentation. Piper acted as a facilitator to discussions that, at times, grew heated as participants strayed from the academic format to engage in active discussion. By engaging audiences in active participation, Piper created an early work of Relational Aesthetics or what might be described as Social practice. As documented in a video by Sam Samore, the experience transcended academic didacticism in favor of social exchange; Piper's mantra for the work was "GET DOWN AND PARTY TOGETHER."
In 1981, Piper published the essay "Ideology, Confrontation, and Political Self Awareness" in High-Performance Magazine. In it, she details three pervasive logical fallacies that she felt contributed to constructing one's ideology: the False Identity Mechanism, Illusion of Perfectability, and One Way Communication Mechanism. She argued that these 3 fallacies lead to the Illusion of Omniscience, which she defined as "[b]eing so convinced of the infallibility of your own beliefs about everyone else that you forget you are perceiving and experiencing as other people from a perspective that is in its own ways just as subjective and limited as theirs." In 2008, Cambridge University Press published her two-volume essay "Rationality and the Structure of the Self". Volume I involves a summary of a wealth of Western philosophy, while Volume II focuses on her own interpretation of these philosophers. In Volume II, Piper argues that without moral alienation, we would be unable to forge relationships with others, or act transpersonally in the service of selfless or disinterested moral principles.
Much of Piper's work deals with issues of passing and racism in the United States. For example, her 1986 work Calling Card is a card that she could give to call out anyone white who made racist comments in public. Piper's Everything #5.2 (2004) is a piece of mirrored glass shaped like a tombstone that layers the reflection of the viewer, the text "Everything Will Be Taken Away," and the internal structures behind the plaster of the gallery wall. The work can be seen as means of provoking viewers to interrogate the power of institutions to determine the value of a piece of art, as well as to interrogate their own place in the world. In The Probable Trust Registry, the piece in which Piper received top honors at the Venice Biennale in 2015, Piper asked visitors to sign contracts with themselves adhering to one of a trio of posted statements (for instance, one read, "I will always do what I say I am going to do."). In a statement accompanying the award, the jury said: "Piper has reformed conceptual practice to include personal subjectivity—of herself, her audience, and the public in general." They also noted that the piece asks its audience "to engage in a lifelong performance of personal responsibility." In February 2017, the work was central to her first solo exhibition in a German museum at Nationalgalerie at Hamburger Bahnhof.
She currently lives and works in Berlin, where she runs the Berlin Journal of Philosophy and the Adrian Piper Research Archive. In 2015, she was awarded the Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition of the Venice Biennale.
A 50-year retrospective of Piper's work titled Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 is currently exhibiting at the MOMA from March 31, 2018 through July 22, 2018 (the first time the New York museum has devoted the entire top floor level to a living artist).
"It seemed that the more clearly and abstractly I learned to think, the more clearly I was able to hear my gut telling me what I needed to do, and the more pressing it became to do it." -Adrian Piper.