by Nico Wheadon
From Passing to Purple
MoMA | MARCH 31 – JULY 22, 2018
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 is not the systematic web of blunt perceptions the exhibition’s title would have you believe. With nearly three-hundred works spanning the entire sixth floor of MoMA—a first for a living artist—the exhibition demands its audience bring with it a willingness to work, both objectively and subjectively, for reason. For me, this was an isolating experience as I struggled to flow with the uncontested praise that’s accompanied this seminal, far-reaching exhibition. While I have always valued the profoundly poetic explorations of self and community found in Piper’s earlier works, I experienced a crisis of conscience as I moved through the final galleries.
My own intuitions felt shamefully in conflict with those rendered visible by the artist whose brave work has opened doors for a liberated woman such as myself to find footing in this world of institutionalized art. The emotional labor it took to weather Piper’s persistent and at times injurious provocations, as in Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013)—alongside the series of moral negotiations I encountered as the exhibition shifted perspective from self to other to othering in its depictions of black bodies—left me in pieces. I had longingly prepared myself for the instigation that has come to define many of Piper’s bold gestures as an artist, however, I was wholly unprepared for the sunken place I found myself in as I stepped out of the exhibition and back into my very black, American life.
What follows is a hypothetical interview with the artist who, to my knowledge, no longer grants them and has expatriated to Berlin:
Q: An important subtext to your early drawings is the role of the then-legal drug LSD as the genesis of self-portraiture in your practice. During your late ’60s self-exploration in altered perception, the concurrent Black Arts Movement and Civil Rights Movement was awakening a collective black consciousness and imagination. What do these early self-portraits reveal about how you saw yourself at that time? Did your experimentations in liberation from the body—your body—also imagine the liberation of other black bodies?
Q: In the Vanilla Nightmares series (1986), you combat notions of white fragility and privilege by appropriating and repurposing pages from the New York Times as a canvas for your own figural ruminations on race. Nude black figures engulf and penetrate the headlines of American history, challenging their veracity and offering an alternate reality. In your self-portraits—specifically Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981) and Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady (1995)—you name race more directly in your lingual framing of the works. As an artist, do you think it is easier to discuss race through a self-referential lens when language is at play?
Q: The Mythic Being series marks a seismic shift in your practice—performance art seems to untether your gaze from self and open up metaphysical terrain in which to imagine and refigure the other. Your body becomes a powerful medium, and embodied gestures expose and redirect the projections of others onto your identity and form. I imagine you learned a great deal about those you encountered as your alter-ego. What did this process teach you about your physical, spiritual and emotional selves?
Q: As an artist whose unyielding work has often explored the social constructions that put democracy at risk of self-deconstruction, what communities do you consider yourself to be a part of? How and where do these communities—and the theoretical audiences for your work—intersect? In what ways are you present and absent for these interactions?
Q: Many responded in arms to Dana Schutz’s, Open Casket, depicting slain Emmett Till in the 2016 Whitney Biennial. This uproar marked only a recent chapter in the mounting resistance to the spectacle and consumption of black death in art. It also rearticulated a set of unspoken rules around representation, solidarity, and the materialization of other’s trauma. In your opinion, what do works like Free #2 (1989) and Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013)—which depict a lynching, police brutality, and Trayvon Martin’s face obscured by a crosshair—add to this conversation? And, in the ironic titling of these works, how does your summoning of “liberation” and “imagination” resonate against the lived experiences of these slain black men?
Q: As an expatriate who has selectively disengaged from the very real trappings of race and nationality, how do you see and engage the struggle of black America today? I’ve heard that you no-longer identify as black, and have shed that aspect of your identity for purple. How does the privilege of purple intersect with making work about the black experience?
Q: Upon exiting the galleries, I participated in The Rules of the Game #2, a performance installation in which I signed a certified contract with you, binding me to “always mean what I say,” a promise I am privileged to make. As someone now bound to you, I wonder in what ways you feel and are bound to me, and what form this conversation takes if you don’t show up.
NICO WHEADON is director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is also an independent writer, photographer, and cultural producer, and is on faculty at Hartford Art School.