New York

Adrien Piper

Alternative Museum

This retrospective of Adrian Piper’s works consisted of an uncommonly small and unassuming set of objects that took on larger dimensions and greater depth as one examined them. Most of the exhibition (which was curated by Jane Farver) featured photographs conspicuously lacking in technical splendor, videotapes in an easy and relaxed interviewlike style, looseleaf binders containing conceptual works based on mental experiments, and audiocassette players with headphones. Many of these deal with complex areas of language and thought, subjects that Piper has studied intensively for more than 15 years.

Piper’s background is unusual, even for a Conceptual artist of somewhat classic mold. She became involved in both performance and Conceptual art while studying fine arts at the School of Visual Arts and then philosophy at City College of New York, and went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. She has taught philosophy for more than ten years, at several universities. Her dissertation, entitled “A New Model of Rationality,” develops, with a foundation in the thought of Immanuel Kant, a theory that acknowledges the power of “prior assumptions of responsibility” in human motivation, seeking “a model of the self that a theory of the good society might presuppose.” This ethical concern for the self’s theoretical assumptions about society shows up throughout her artworks and demonstrates the close relationship between art (primarily, perhaps, but not exclusively, Conceptual art) and philosophy.

Piper frequently focuses on the sociological ramifications of her own mixed racial heritage. Photo-text collages document her dawning awareness, during her childhood, of the paradox of being conditioned by education in a white private school while she was technically regarded as black by society. The conditioned formation of the self–as opposed to racial or other essences–also informs works such as the videotape Funk Lessons, 1984 (directed by Sam Samore), in which Piper investigates the “prior assumptions” of different ethnic identities. Other works document performances that similarly deal with the relation between self and society. For several of these she transformed herself into an alter ego called the Mythic Being, a performance persona that she had created in 1972–a young, angry, nonwhite male who reflects the formation of ideas of selfhood by racist social conditioning and the reciprocal activity of that conditioned self upon the society around it.

A wallwork documenting her private loft performance Food for the Spirit, 1971, encapsulates the interactions or reciprocal absorptions of self and tradition, body and mind, identity and society. What we saw here was a dim, blurred self-portrait photograph of the artist standing naked in front of a mirror, and next to it the following brief paragraph:

While I was reading and writing a paper on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason . . . I fasted, did yoga and isolated myself socially. Whenever I felt I was losing my sense of self due to the profundity of Kant’s thought, I went to the mirror to peer at myself to make sure I was still there, and repeated aloud the passage in the Critique that was shaking the foundations of my self-identity, until it reduced to just (psychologically manageable) words. . . .

Philosophy, which here threatens to dissolve the self in an ocean of abstraction, is counteracted by art, which—contrary to its old romantic championing of spirit—reaffirms the ordinary, everyday self and plants its feet once more squarely upon the ground.

Piper’s stance in these works is simultaneously engaged and detached, with an observational coolness like that of the scientist as much as the philosopher. There is an inquiring yet accepting mood, at once willing to deal with the givens of existence and persevering in her determination to do so without fantasy.

Thomas McEvilley