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Are you Being Preached to? Again? How Adrian Piper’s Meta-Art Imagined a Socially Engaged Art World

Power is bad for the lining of the stomach. Financial success causes overweight and heart trouble. Art-world parties are bad for the liver. Galleries cause headaches and blood-sugar attacks. Dealers cause dislocation of the jaw. Critical reviews cause digestive upsets and emphysema. Competition between fellow artists for any of the above is a known carcinogen.

-Adrian Piper, A Political Statement (1973)1

Though she now lives in Germany, Adrian Piper is today one of the most influential living American artists, even as she saw herself “perched on the outer edge of the art world” for most of her career. 2 Moving through the current retrospective Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitionsthe largest exhibition ever mounted for a living artist at the Museum of Modern Artyou see Piper engaging with an evolving array of systems: in her minimalist pieces, she is concerned with the spatial and geometric, in her performance and concept-based work, she turns to critiquing the social. Coverage of the show has frequently pointed out that her work from decades past still feels so current, so relevant, because of the direct, often confrontational expositions on American racism and xenophobia that dominate her output from the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s.

But for me, what makes viewing Piper’s retrospective such a unique and revelatory experience is the way she so vigorously communicates a meta-critique of the power structures intrinsic to art institutions and art spectatorship itself, a rare and admittedly strange thing to experience at a museum of MoMA’s stature. In addition to Piper’s formidable contributions to minimalist and conceptual movements, and her innovative performances that play with gender, abjection, and self-objectification, it’s clear that contemporary American art is indebted to the artist for her theories on “meta-art,” the idea that artists must make explicit the thought, procedures, and processes behind their work, and generally labor to provide transparency to how it came to be in the world. Piper notes in her essay “In Support of Meta-Art” that “Art history is the history of things, not people…Most recently, art history is at least the history of entities with significant capital power,” arguing for meta-art as a tool in reassessing traditional art historical value systems towards a more humanistic and democratic model.3 Piper posited that separating art from the greater fabric of the social was not only impossible but also the major fallacy of an art world whose “happenings” and events, which were supposed to challenge the boundary between art and life, were often insular and artificial affairs.

Adrian Piper. The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear. 1975. Oil crayon on gelatin silver print. 8 x 10 in. (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Collection Thomas Erben, New York. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

Piper was deeply interested in fostering the understanding that art, in order to be truly effective, must act as a “catalytic agent…function[ing] as a medium of change between the artist and the viewer.”4 Though historically this had been upheld as one of art’s ideal qualities, Greenbergian formalism and the tense postwar political and economic climate of the US brought about what she terms “Easy Listening art”: art that appears “produced in a climate of fear—of institutional or governmental or corporate retaliation.”5 Piper was a forceful, persistent voice within a wave of artists and activists who worked to expose the danger of art’s escalating neutrality—the idea that viewing art should be a purely aesthetic experience, a space of enjoyment and leisure—arguing that museums and galleries, as public spaces, must be understood as “political arenas.”6 She chooses to mount this critique from within the gallery’s walls in pieces like Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (1978), an installation in a small, spotlit room containing a single photograph of a group of South African men entering a subway station, framed and covered by reflective glass. Piper intends for viewers to confront their own image in the glass as they hear a recording of a monologue that is styled after the didactics of a museum audio tour; but instead of providing information on the piece’s importance, the narrator slowly undermines the neutrality of the relationship between the viewer, the object, and the space that contains them:

…This gallery is one of the best: progressive, daring, shows some of the most interesting and aesthetically innovative work around…You would like to have your criteria of good art confirmed, or disrupted, or violated, by the art you see here…How do the images in this picture relate to each other? How is the two-dimensionality of the picture plane treated?…What did the artist intend to convey? What’s the connection between what you see and what you’re hearing? Are you being preached to? Again? What is the speaker trying to express? What do these images mean? What’s the significance of all the people in the photo being black? Of their looking angry or sullen? Of their shabbiness? Of your emotional and political distance from them? Is it aesthetic?…

Though I experienced Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma in person at the MoMA, I was able to access the transcript quoted here because Piper has made it available in Out of Order, Out of Sight, a two-volume collection documenting her works, essays, criticism and other writings. It spans over 600 pages, providing evidence of her commitment to a meta-art practice and the importance she places in transparent self-representation—a commitment that extended to publishing her own rebuttals to critics who she felt misinterpreted her work, or whose analyses were marked by racism or misogyny. This sharply contrasts the approach taken by many of  her ultra-successful, white, male contemporaries who offered little explanation of their process or intent, instead relying on the instant valorization given to their authorial gestures and aesthetic choices (see: Carl Andre, who when asked about his 1973 exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, 144 Blocks and Stones, “How do you think that the blocks and stones work together to create a sense of place?” responded, “They work together because I put them together”). Piper’s approach mirrors that of other women of color who have come to be recognized as important cultural producers, like Howardena Pindell, who has authored numerous articles on and even an empirical study of racism in the art world, and Octavia Butler, who provides afterwords to her short stories to share her guiding inspirations and personal motivations for writing them. These are strategies for creators to avoid misinterpretation and gain a sense of control over the reception of their work, but also function to take artistic production off the mythical pedestal that’s been upheld for so long by the male-genius-author or white critic.

Installation view of Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 31–July 22, 2018. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck.

Piper’s legacy is felt strongly today. The retrospective’s co-curator Cornelia Butler argues that “since the ’90s, there’s a generation of artists whose work is really almost impossible without her,” and Piper’s influence can be detected in the work of everyone from long-recognized figures within the feminist art canon, like Cindy Sherman, to young, socially engaged artists like Chloe Bass, who also calls herself a public practitioner. Bass’s project The Practice of the Daily (2011), in which she took a photo every day for a month, recalls Piper’s Concrete Infinity Documentation Piece (1970), wherein Piper documented her daily activities with clinical accuracy on dozens of graph paper sheets, with each entry accompanied by a self-portrait (Bass also reviewed A Synthesis of Intuitions, where she reflects that “Piper’s practice and life paved the way for an artist like me, or even a person like me, to exist”). Critic Robert Storr argues that Piper’s phototext piece This is Not the Documentation of A Performance (1976), in which she altered a photograph accompanying a news article on the eviction of a Hispanic family in Manhattan, “anticipated the whole genre of graphic political montage to which Barbara Kruger and others turned in the 1980s”; the urgency of that piece can also be seen in the work of ultra-contemporary media interventionists like Alexandra Bell, whose guerilla-style subway station wheatpaste of a corrected New York Times cover story on the murder of Michael Brown, A Teenager with Promise, first circulated widely on social media in 2017.7

Addressing her fellow artists, Piper stated, “We take a covert, perverse pride in our maverick status. But we ignore the repercussions of it by enclosing ourselves in the languages, associations, and interactions of the art world.” Meta-art, she argues, offers a way out of the insularity of this enclosure, and a means to appreciate that “artists are social: we are not exempt from the forces or fate of this society.”8 The practices of Bass and Bell, both inextricably situated in the public sphere, prove that Piper’s call to meta-art is as urgent as ever today, and that a greater recognition of the intellectual, critical, and creative contributions of women of color are valuable and desperately need prioritization if we are to transform the deep brokenness of American culture in a moment of escalating political desperation.

Installation view of Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 31–July 22, 2018. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Ultimately, though, A Synthesis of Intuitions does not provide hope that there is a clear way out of the present situationmore often, it offers lessons in losing faithin other people, in art, in institutions, in the nation and society itself. In the final room of the exhibition, viewers encounter a couple of Piper’s more recent works in which she considers her own genealogy while also reflecting on the vexing end to her tenure as a professor at Wellesley College. In Self-Portrait 2000 (2000), a digital collage of text and image that viewers can scroll through on a tablet, Piper presents an excerpt of a letter she had written to Wellesley’s president, arguing that “Wellesley has used my public visibility to enhance its multicultured public image while in reality actively preventing me from doing the mul­ticultural work it publicly claims to welcome.” This is situated alongside a poem addressed to “God” and an image of a crashed airplane with a “Piper” logo on its side; it belongs to the Piper Aircraft Company, founded by the artist’s great-uncle. Roderick Ferguson discusses Self-Portrait 2000 in the introduction to his book The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, positing that the piece, with its evocative image of the downed “Piper” plane standing in for the artist herself, acts as an archive of failures and unfulfilled promises by the American academy:

“An academy that was reborn from the protests and agitation of the sixties and seventies was supposed to make good on its promise to minorities, in general, and to a black woman artist and intellectual, in particular. Humanity was supposed to keep faith with that promise and with the people of color to whom the promise was made; a life—Adrian Piper’s—was supposed to land safely and come to intellectual and institutional fulfillment.”9

But, of course, it does not. A related piece titled Never Forget (2016) is a wall print that collages together images of a genealogical chart, maps of Massachusetts and Berlin, an illustration of an English Protestant martyr named John Rogers being burned at the stake, and the letter from the Wellesley College board of trustees terminating her appointment. The chart traces Piper’s lineage from pre-modern Europe to the early settlers of Massachusetts, eventually locating the pairing of her great-great-grandparents Philip Piper and Nellie Bailey; Bailey was once an enslaved woman that Philip Piper had legally owned and had later married. Considering all of this information together is a confusing but generative experience. Is Piper reminding viewers of the many social and economic barriers that had been broken to allow the descendant of an enslaved woman to reach the privileged position of a tenured college professor? Or is she showing us that despite the passing of centuries, there’s still no way for her to truly inhabit this role to the mutual satisfaction of herself and the academy?

Adrian Piper. Adrian Moves to Berlin. 2007. Documentation of the street performance. Video (color, sound), 01:02:42. Video by Robert Del Principe. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Detail: video still at 00:38:09. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

Never Forget, like a lot of Piper’s later works, is stubbornly open-ended, though what is undeniable is her general weariness towards performing as an intellectual and cultural commodity; what might be seen as her personal failures point also to the untenability of the traditional institutional path towards greatness for a woman of color doing work around institutional racism and exclusion. Once you have reached the end of A Synthesis of Intuitions, you are presented with a video of Piper joyously dancing in Berlin to celebrate her move to Germany and the beginning of a new life on different terms. Seeing this, I felt both an immense, happy relief at her escape and a sadness that she needed to leave.  

  1.  Adrian Piper, “A Political Statement” in  Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 2, Selected Writings in Art Criticism, 1967-1992 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996) p. 29.
  2.  Piper, “Introduction: Some Very FORWARD Remarks,” in  Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 1, Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968-1992 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996) p. xxxvii.
  3.  Piper, “In Support of Meta-Art,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 2, pp. 22-23.
  4.  Piper, “Art as Catalysis,” August 1970, in “Talking to Myself: The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object,”  in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 1, pp. 32-33.
  5.  Piper, “Introduction: Some Very FORWARD Remarks,” p. xxxi.
  6.  Piper, “Some Thoughts on the Political Character of This Situation,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 2, p. 43.
  7.  Robert Storr, Foreword to Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 1, p. xxi.
  8.  Piper, “In Support of Meta-Art,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 2, p. 27.
  9.  Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) p. 4. Many thanks to my friend Reya Sehgal for bringing Ferguson’s book to my attention and for suggesting Bass and Bell in a conversation about this essay.

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