Edited by Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker
A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965 – 2016
Adrian Piper has long grappled with the immediate, present-tense experience of the viewer in front of an artwork—an art encounter that can bring awareness of what she calls the “indexical present.” In pursuit of this kind of experience—for herself and for her viewer—Adrian Piper dances, hums, and speaks to thin air. She wanders around doused in vinegar, and wet paint. She philosophizes, practices yoga, and makes art.
Edited by Cornelia Butler and David Platzker
Two books published by MoMA to accompany the retrospective Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965 – 2016 offer a model of reading (and writing) that invite the reader into further proximity with Piper’s works. The catalogue and critical reader of essays elaborates on the works and themes of the exhibition and Piper’s career but also allow the reader to perform some of Piper’s own methodological approach. These volumes follow on earlier critical groundwork, laid out in works such as Maurice Berger’s retrospective catalogue (1999), as well as John P. Bowles’s Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (2011), adding significant heft to this existing scholarship.
Piper’s investment in a reading and writing practice is not a casual one. The chronology included at the back of the catalogue records the books Piper has read throughout her life, among other milestones from her childhood, education, and career, and even specifies when she received (and began writing in) her first journal. For Cornelia Butler, as she describes it in her catalogue essay, Piper’s use of the mode of direct address lays a linguistic, textual model over an engagement with much of Piper’s work. In the galleries at MoMA, any rapt, assiduous museum-goer moves at her own pace through the rooms of Piper’s works, advancing at the rate it takes to read many of Piper’s works on the wall, not just look at them. Reading heightens the self-awareness of the audience member taking in a text in which Piper’s voice is addressed directly to her, drawing this reader further into the network of temporal and spatial relations that connects her to others in the gallery or space of the artwork. As Butler puts it, “Reading, Piper shows, is a social act.”
Along with Butler in the catalogue, David Platzker also identifies the importance of Piper’s writing practice to an understanding of her work. Platzker traces the development and influence of Conceptual art in and on Piper’s work, from her early, mid-1960s figurative drawings produced after mind-bending experiences on LSD, to the photographs of Food for the Spirit (1971) that document Piper’s own nude body in a mirror in her loft apartment. “Using systems, permutations within sequences, and rational, serial confrontations with the indexical present,” Platzker concludes, “Piper has incrementally and logically […] advanced a holistic pattern of system-based art, intricately balancing […] what can be seen and knowingly categorized with the proposition that there also exists a plane that can only be understood through intuitive logic.” Central among these systems in Platzker’s analysis are the patterns of writing: as Piper increasingly moved from a pure Conceptualism to one that mixed Conceptual influences with the incorporation of the artist’s body, her work engaged with processes of reading and the form of the book and printed page. In this period in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Piper contributed work to Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci’s mimeographed magazine 0 to 9, even publishing a book under the magazine’s imprint. 0 to 9’s roster also included artists Robert Smithson, Lee Lozano, Sol Lewitt, and Bernadette’s sister Rosemary Mayer (a close friend of Piper’s), as well as important poets of the period, such as Clark Coolidge, Kenneth Koch, and Hannah Weiner.
One of Piper’s works from this period, Untitled (“If you are a slow reader…”) (1968), presents a paragraph that comments on how long it will take the reader to read its sentences. “[T]he structural components,” Platzker writes of what he calls one of Piper’s “pageworks,” “mark a system for testing the constraints of understanding the relationship between seeing information and experiencing it.” This testing of the variable constraints of reading also situates the work of perception and understanding in the physical body, and for Platzker, Piper’s investigation of these structural and perceptual components of the system of writing led directly to her infamous performance works in the Catalysis series (1970 – 73). For this series, Piper inserted her own body into public spaces in a variety of conspicuous or altered circumstances: She rode a city bus with a towel stuffed in and hanging from her mouth. She filled a purse with ketchup and emptied it item by item on a department store counter. She put on an oversized white shirt, covered herself in white paint, and walked down the sidewalk with a sign on her chest that read “WET PAINT.” For Platzker, each of these interventions demonstrates Piper’s dissolution of formal constraints in melding the bodily and the Conceptual as explored in her written pageworks.
Though Piper formally suspended interviews about her work in May 2015, she developed a writing practice that she calls “Meta-Art”—a sort of mix of autobiography, documentation of her work, and auto-criticism—starting in the late 1960s. (These writings were collected in the first volume of MIT Press’s two-volume Out of Order, Out of Sight  and present a necessary supplement to Piper’s artworks.) Fittingly, Piper’s own catalogue text, her lecture “The Real Thing Strange,” is the book’s most compelling contribution. In the text of this lecture performance, Piper evades the strategy of her “Meta-Art” writings and refuses to talk about her artwork, rather offering close readings of a poem by William Empson and a passage from Kant. Instead of her work as an artist, Piper performs her work as a scholar and philosopher. The encounter with the artwork, with the “real thing strange,” Piper argues, does not come from an artist’s talk, nor from reading wall labels in the gallery. Through her reading of Kant’s notion of intuition, Piper argues for a type of immediate, readerly encounter with an artwork that opens us to the indexical present and our own interpretations and intuitions. As she writes in her May 2015 statement renouncing future interviews about her artwork, “I’ve concluded that it would be best for me to just get out of the way, so that others can have a go at it for themselves. Please do.”
The essayists Butler and Platzker selected for the catalogue’s companion volume Adrian Piper: A Reader take up the challenge of Piper’s exhortation to “have a go at it.” The collection gives equal weight to questions of art history (in the relationship of Piper’s work to Conceptual art, performance and installation, and the negotiation of subjectivity and objectivity, or “objecthood”) and philosophy. The book’s first essay, Jorg Heiser’s “Adventures in Reasonland,” dives further into the connections between Piper’s art practice and engagement with Kant’s ideas. (Further underscoring the importance of close reading to understanding Piper’s work, A Reader’s cover design features Piper’s own mark-up of a page from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—underlined, annotated, and doodled upon—from her work Food for the Spirit .) In weaving together Piper’s art, philosophical engagement, and dedication to yoga, Heiser delimits the expansive ground the rest of the Reader’s essays set out to investigate. Diarmuid Costello’s related essay synthesizes Piper’s work as artist, philosopher, and yoga practitioner, arguing that the challenge to the scholar of Piper’s work is to take it on its own multidisciplinary, syncretic methodological terms. Both Heiser and Costello take up Piper’s call to critics and readers in “The Real Thing Strange;” they respond to Piper’s methodology that includes close reading with a similar syncretic, analytic method. If Piper has abandoned her meta-art approach of elaborating on her own art works in writings and interviews, commentators like Heiser and Costello assume this style of reading and writing.
Piper’s own art works put forth another writerly challenge for her audiences as a strategy for making them participants in the work itself. For MoMA’s retrospective, the museum reenacted Everything #10, a 2007 group performance in which participants received a forehead henna tattoo of the words, “Everything will be taken away.” The words that mark each performer (in this iteration, museum employees) are tattooed in reverse so that they become legible in a mirror. Participants keep a journal of their experiences (the reactions of others, etc.) and re-read their written record a year after the tattoo washes away. Words serve different functions in this piece—as an image (illegible to passers-by or reflected in the mirror), as defining space (in the distance between the peformer and the passer-by or mirror), as documentation (in the participant’s journal). “Throughout [Piper’s] oeuvre,” Elvan Zabunyan writes in his A Reader essay, “words ricochet into thoughts as in a journal—at times along temporal lines, at times along spatial ones.” The self-reflexive work of writing a journal (punned in the necessity of a mirror to read the tattoo) becomes not only a path to self-knowledge but a relational structure in time and space. In writing and making art, Piper creates works that not only allow us to stand in the posture of the writer’s partner, the reader, but that also allow us to share the position of the writer.
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.