March 31 – July 22, 2018
“In whatever way and through whatever means a cognition may relate to objects, that through which it relates immediately to them and at which all thought as a means is directed an ends is intuition.”
–Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
“I would like people to sit in the bleachers,” Adrian Piper tells us, “and think of where they are sitting as an amphitheater of the sort that one would sit in to watch Christians being devoured by the lions.” This is our introduction to Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 on the second floor in the Marron Atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Printed on the wall, the artist’s premise registers as instruction; you enter the arena and are immediately inside a bright cube, with tiered seating and a grid of fluorescent lights in the drop down ceiling. Around the room, the scene repeats itself in the mirrors that line the walls. You are watching a video screen mounted on a central column, where a man recites a litany or creed: “I’m not shiftless. I’m not crazy. I’m not servile. I’m not stupid. I’m not dirty. I’m not sneaky. I’m not childish. I’m not evil.” The man is black. The arena is white. The devouring lions, indeed.
You’ve been seated here by the artist. But what is your position with regard to the object? Piper’s special power is to locate you in space and time, where you become part of the work. You’re a thing she is thinking, and so you are the object. But you are also thinking and seeing what’s happening in this arena of consciousness, and so you are both object and subject.
All hail Adrian Piper: pioneering Conceptual artist, philosopher, lion tamer. Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 is the artist’s first major American exhibition in nearly twenty years. MoMA, in collaboration with the Hammer Museum, presents over 290 works by the artist, from early paintings made in the 1960s—prismatic explorations of perception under the influence of LSD—to her white panopticon, What It’s Like, What It Is #3 (1991), to The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3 (2013)—an exercise in social contracting that won the Golden Lion Award at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Piper is known for her performance works—public provocations like her male avatar, The Mythic Being (1973 – 75), or her pedagogical Funk Lessons (1983 – 84)—but this huge exhibition demonstrates her polyglot mastery of objects, images, and text.
In the first gallery, there is the grid: the graph paper geometries of first-wave Conceptualism, which offered Piper a language for thinking clearly, concretely, and systematically about objecthood and the matrices of perception. Under the influence of Sol LeWitt—an early supporter of her work—Piper explored the formal and representational possibilities of language and materials. Her “Hypothesis” series (1968 – 70) maps photographs of objects in her home or neighborhood onto the xy axis of space and time. These coordinate planes continued to inform her field of awareness as her work became increasingly personal, confrontational, and embodied.
In 1970, she appeared at the downtown art bar Max’s Kansas City wearing elbow-length satin gloves and a blindfold. The action demonstrated her commitment to her own compass—her refusal to be co-opted by the Downtown art scene. As she wrote later. “I didn’t want to be absorbed as a collaborator… It would mean allowing my consciousness to be influenced by their perceptions of art, and exposing my perceptions of art to their consciousness, and I didn’t want that.”1
If the artist does not collaborate with prevailing social attitudes or habits, she must become an agent of change. Since the 1970s, she has critiqued the ideologies of racism and sexism through direct address to the viewer (“Pretend not to know what you know”). When presenting material from her own life, as in her “Political Self Portrait” series (1978 – 80), her aim is not simply to exorcise the traumas of growing up black, female, or poor, but to confront the viewer with her own biases about race, gender, or class.
In the last gallery, Piper’s vision seems to widen in scope. In her “Everything” series (2003 – 13), she prints photographic portraits on graph paper. Each face is rubbed out and replaced with text: “Everything will be taken away.” You wonder: Is this her office? Are these the faces of her family and friends? Or her? But unlike her “Hypothesis” work, individual identity and historical presence are effaced in the unplotted points of the grid.
In her “Vanishing Point” series (2009 – 11), she manipulates the substrate itself, altering or rubbing out the columns and rows of expense reports and other official documents. She overlays them with shaded drawings of concentric circles: the O with no beginning or end—the great all and nothing. You might see this work as a response to aging or a position arrived at through her longtime practice of meditation and yoga. Still, she continues to target the social forces that enact the corrosions of time. In Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013) the concentric circles and xy axis become a gunsight framing the face of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager shot and killed unrepentantly by George Zimmerman while on foot in his Florida neighborhood.
Piper’s strategy, throughout her work, is to hack our ethical motivation through our cognitive faculties: our ability to distinguish difference or recognize commonalities; our susceptibility to change in the course of a relational encounter. Our reason can pilot the chariot, she thinks, relieving us of the crushing drives of our own desires and delusions.
Ultimately, she’s after freedom—from the tyranny of other minds and the bogus authority of one’s own bias. Though her Kantian commitments and her spiritual practice inform her idea of freedom, here, her quest becomes most vivid when she’s dancing. Think of your delight, coming out of the last gallery to see Piper dancing alone in Alexanderplatz. The video work, Adrian Arrives in Berlin (2007), was made after Piper, abroad, found herself on the TSA's suspicious traveler list. Rather than return to the U.S.—becoming complicit with the government verdict—Piper settled permanently in Berlin. In the video, we see Piper grooving over a grid of concrete tiles in the public square. Improvising, her body makes its own arc like the line of the circle traversing the grid, cutting across space and time. She’s on the run, saying “Fuck it. Let's boogie.”2
- Adrian Piper, “Untitled Performance for Max’s Kansas City,” Out of Order, Out of Sight, Vol. I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968 – 1992. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996) 27.
- Adrian Piper, “Notes on Funk III,” Out of Order, Out of Sight, Vol. I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968 – 1992. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996) 208.
Nicole Miller is a Brooklyn-based writer and coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York.