ADRIAN PIPER 1: Becoming Free

Adrian Piper:  A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 at MOMA, NY spring/summer 2018


To paraphrase Ram Dass (Richard Alpert, American born 1931), you don’t want to be American or South African or gay or straight or black or white; or whatever.

What you want is to be free.


Adrian Piper has been a conceptual artist since its first hour. 

This post deals with her work until 2000 and, given the artist’s productivity, cannot be comprehensive.  The gods willing, a second post will cover the last 18 years.


Conceptual art is the art of an idea, the idea(s) of the artist.  The physical form of the art is secondary to the idea inhabiting the art.

It can be difficult to appreciate conceptual art.

One reason is that the idea being represented is unclear, uninteresting, mundane or a nonsense.  It is as difficult to represent and evolve an idea in art as it is in philosophy.  

Another reason is that the representation of the idea in question is shoddy.


The ideas enlivening Adrian Piper’s work are: how do we perceive the world?  Ourselves?  How should we live?  How can we become free?

The most important questions of a life.  





This is Not the Documentation of a Performance, 1976, ink on screenprint of newspaper article.  Private collection on loan to MOMA 2018



MOMA, NY , for the first time for a living artist, dedicated its entire sixth floor this spring and summer to representing with more than 290 pieces the creative life and ideas of sixty-five years of Adrian Piper’s work.


The artist’s method is to lay out her life:  open up and lay her mind out as on a table to which you are invited as for a meal; move her body into your field of vision and hearing and action so that she can reach you and touch you.


She is tackling the issues which have most affected her:  race, gender, xenophobia, social engagement and the evolution of the spiritual life.


Some of the artist’s messages are describing the state of our social relations and individual psychological positions.

Others are about transcending our differences.  The artist proposes that we can do this if we understand that we all have each other in us.  We are, all of us, amalgams one of the other.


A journey with a disciplined, focused and fierce artist.

A journey of mind, body, heart and spirit. 

This is her history and her life.  They amount to a history and a life of a people: her people: her white race, her black race, her every race. 

The human race which everywhere tackles these same issues.



Brief Chronology of the artist’s life





Ashes to Ashes, 1995.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

The photos above are of the artist’s parents. They were accompanied by text:  a marriage of passion which survived until the consequence of smoking – hers and his – took their lives.




I Am Some Body, the Body of My Friends, #1-18, 1992-95, one of 18 photographs: this one with the artist’s mother when she, suffering from emphysema, was towards the end of her life.




The artist was born to parents of mixed race and comfortable background in New York: African, Indian (the subcontinent of India), British, German .  Members now of the African-American upper middle class. 


Some members of her family passed for white. 

A simple sentence but one which contains a large explosive charge.

It shatters families, clans, lineages, communities.  It lays bare a huge man-made crater in the ground of the whole history of the United States. 





Self Portrait at Age 5 with Doll, 1966, oil on canvas with doll. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.


The father of Adrian Piper’s father abandoned his family on the birth of a son who was not fair enough to maintain the illusion that his family was white.  He went west where he established a new ‘white’ family.   

Adrian Piper’s great-uncle, William, the founder of the Piper Aircraft Corporation, lived as a very successful white man and endowed his alma mater, Harvard, as such.



1948:  Birth of the artist

1964:   The artist started a practice of yoga.  A major life-long support and guide. Then an expanded study of Vedic philosophy

1971:  The artist shut herself away to study Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason (1781-87). A major support and guide for her life.

1981: the artist received her PhD from Harvard University.

She has taught philosophy for 30 years at university level.  Her specializations have been Kant and meta-ethics.

1985: In a year of great difficulty in her private life and in the pursuit of her academic work in philosophy, the artist adopted Yogic celibacy and gave up on meat and alcohol also. 

2005: after many years of teaching philosophy at college level, the artist left for Berlin, having sold up in the US in the midst of a dispute with her academic employer.

2006: Finding that she was on a US Government watch list (‘Fly List’), the artist decided not to return to the US and never has.

2008:  Cambridge University accepted to publish Rationality and the Structure of the Self which the artist later published herself online.

Early 2000s The artist refused to have her work included in exclusively African-American artist shows.  She finds this ghettoizing. 

2012: The artist “retired from being black”.  She loaded a digitally altered self-portrait to her website, her skin significantly darkened. The accompanying note said that her ‘new racial designation would be “6.25 grey” (honoring her African heritage).

2015: She declined all further press interviews about her work.

2015The artist received the Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition for her installation of hospitality desks – The Probable Trust Registry – recreated for this exhibition. 

Participants were invited to commit to one or more of three rules:  I will always be too expensive to buy;  I will mean everything I say; I will do everything I say I will do.

2018Publication of Escape to Berlin.




Untitled Self-Portrait, 1967 (later signed 1968), pencil and charcoal on paper.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY




Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981, pencil on paper.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY


Adrian Piper’s father has two birth certificates:  on one he is described as ‘white’.  On the second, which his mother requested as a corrective, he is described as ‘octoroon’ (one eighth black).


The artist’s life work has proceeded in the context of her assumption of her status as a Black American. 


This led her into the dense, baffling complexities of race in the United States. 

No matter who you are in the United States, you are in the baffling complexities of race. 

It has also to be said that, racially, in the United States, you are what others say you are.  And you are treated accordingly.


If you look white and affirm your blackness, the complexities  in your daily interactions multiply to an increased risk to your sanity.  Sanity which is, in any case, often fragilized in the United States if and because you are black and classified as black.



Political Self-Portrait, 1979.



Adrian Piper did not founder. 

However, there seem to have been times of great danger to her.

Asked by the NY Times (interview by Lauren O’Neill-Butler, July 5, 2018) what she considers to be the most important achievements of her life, the artist’s responded thus off the top of her head.


  1.  To have taken care of my mother during the last two years before her death from emphysema.

  2. To have escaped from the United States with my life.

  3. To have successfully treated most of my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms myself, by writing “Escape to Berlin.” (2018)

  4. To have finished “Rationality and the Structure of the Self” (2008) at the same standard of quality I apply when I criticize other philosophers work – thereby demonstrating to my own satisfaction that it is not an unrealistic or impossible standard to meet………

She has worked out a path towards her freedom.   

She has worked and displayed her work to indicate how such a path can be built.

And she has danced.




Context and poles of the artist’s work

The context of the artist’s work are three: race: the quandaries of race in the United States;

gender: the continuing work of women to the end of their own psychological, sexual, cultural and financial emancipation.

And the foreign entanglements of the United States especially in the last sixty years. 


The artist is a close reader of Kant.  His work is one of her poles.

At 23, she shut herself away to read Kant’s masterwork: The Critique of Pure Reason.  The title of this exhibition is a Kantian phrase: A Synthesis of Intuition.  She has published her own philosophical work and notes that the two volumes of her Rationality and Structure of the Self is one of the major achievements of her life.  


Her other pole is her long training in and practice of yoga in its fullest sense in the context of her studies of Vedic philosophy. 


In an interview published on July 5, 2018 in the NY Times’ philosophy newsletter, The Stone, the artist commented on the relationship for her of Kant and Vedic philosophy.

……To study both Kant and Vedic philosophy in conjunction is to supply for the Vedic concepts a detailed philosophical analysis in the Western tradition, and to supply for Kant a concrete practical application in the Vedic tradition.

Kant provides the road map, Vedic philosophy the destination. Together they bridge the gap between theory and practice that was opened by the self-protective reaction to Socrates’ execution on the part of subsequent Greek philosophers…..


Her third pole is her Western culture.  She does not reject it. She claims it and every part of it.

She recognizes its colonizing nature and its tendency to include some and exclude others. Its cultural and artistic terrain belongs to all citizens of the West, she says.




What’s It Like, What It Is #3, 1991, video installation, constructed wood environment, four monitors, mirrors, lighting. MOMA, NY 

One man, an African-American, reviews in the negative a long list of attributes which have been traditionally assigned to his people in the United States (I am not lazy……….)……..



Means and Methods

Painting,  contexted drawing, video and spoken-and-written word art; the use of her own body: performance including dance.  Adrian Piper was at the forefront of all these.  The exception, of course, is painting.


In her teens, the artist completed a suite of 35 Barbie Doll drawings where the figure of the doll is deconstructed, reconstructed, rearranged.




The Barbie Doll Drawings, 1967, rapidograph pen, ink and/or pencil on notebook paper.  MOMA, NY


The artist’s earliest works involved figuration. 




Untitled Planes Painting, 1966, acrylic on wood mounted on acrylic on canvas. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.


She interpreted on paper the influence of LSD.

The ingestion of LSD was not unusual for this generation during the decades of  Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, the Flower Power, Civil Rights Movements, and Second Wave Feminism.  

The museum  notes that these paintings relate to real subjects in the real world in an LSD-infused context. 

LSD started to point the artist to the limits of  human perception.




A wall of LSD-paintings from the 1960s displayed at MOMA, spring/summer 2018




LSD Steve Shomstein, 1966, oil on canvas.  Private Collection on loan to MOMA, NY


LSD Bloodstream, 1965, acrylic on canvas.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY

LSD Mirror Self-Portrait, 1965, charcoal and coloured pencil on paper.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY




Moving to Conceptualism, and under the influence of Sol Lewitt and others, Adrian Piper started working with charts, maps, texts, photographs. 


The artist has described her focus to be on the metaphysics of time:  how objects change, how our perceptions change when we move around in a space and what metaphysical questions arise from this.




A 3-dimensional Representation of Infinite Indivisibilty, 1968, pencil and coloured pencil on graph paper.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin




A visitor at MOMA in late July, 2018 studying a series of Drawings about Paper and Writings about Words, 1967,  mixed media.  Most belong to Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin




Drawings about Paper and Writings about Words, 1967,  mixed media on notebook paper or graph paper. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin





Sixteen Permutations of a Planar Analysis of a Square, 1968, mixed media installation, photostat and wood model. With light reflection at the bottom of the image.   Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin




Concrete 8″ square, 1968, ink and tape on graph paper, mounted on foam core, and typescript page, MOMA, NY




The artist cloistered herself in 1971 to study Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason.  Fearing that she was becoming disembodied, she took a series of reassuring photographs of herself:





Food for the Spirit , 1971, reprinted 1997; one of 14 gelatin silver prints.  MOMA, NY

Food for the Spirit , 1971; ring binder with 14 gelatin silver prints and 44 annotated pages torn from a paperback edition of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason mounted on colour paper , in plastic sleeves.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY


No body no mind. I appreciate the wisdom of the title of these two works.




The artist has said that she wished she could make art for the sake of art.  However, her interactions in the world as an adult and artist, moved her into real issues in the real world.  She wanted to have some impact.  She wanted to contribute to change.


The artist’s trajectory from 1970 onwards was dedicated to confronting again and again the contradictions of the stereotypes of race and gender, of xenophobia and of the consequences of the foreign policy of the United States.

It was in 1970 that the United States invaded Cambodia.


Adrian Piper moved into using her own body as art. The conceptual work she had done with body, space and time was not unhelpful to her in this new phase.


Her first forays were as a solitary, incongruous figure performing unaccustomed acts: dancing in a line at the library or walking through the streets drenched with paint in clothing which said ‘Wet Paint’.   

The name of this series is Catalysis.  Catalysis = an action which generates change.



The artist wanted to see what the reactions would be and to determine to what extent people are constrained by societal rules for order and propriety.




These figures of the monkeys who see, hear and say nothing the artist incorporated into her later graphic work.

I take it that for her this is a touchstone image of the immense hold our social conditioning has on us.  

Unravelling and struggling with which is an essential component of the evolution of our spiritual lives.



Her first widely known work of this beginning was her incorporation of an androgynous persona – a Mythic Being – who both in performance in Cambridge, MA and in New York and in photographs said and did things to confront, outrage and awaken.



The Mythic Being: Sol’s Drawing #2 of 5’, 1974, photograph. Loaned by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis to MOMA, NY


The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear,oil stick, photographs, 1975. Private collection on loan to MOMA,NY




The Mythic Being: Say It Like You Mean It, 1975.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY



 Adrian Piper, I am the Locus (#1), 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph. COURTESY SMART MUSEUM OF ART, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, PURCHASE, GIFT OF CARL RUNGIUS, BY EXCHANGE, 2001.126a.

 I am the Locus #1, 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph.  Loaned by the University of Chicago to MOMA, NY


Adrian Piper, I am the Locus (#2), 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph. COURTESY SMART MUSEUM OF ART, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, PURCHASE, GIFT OF CARL RUNGIUS, BY EXCHANGE, 2001.126a.

 I am the Locus #2, 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph.  Loaned by the University of Chicago to MOMA, NY



Adrian Piper, I am the Locus (#3), 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph. COURTESY SMART MUSEUM OF ART, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, PURCHASE, GIFT OF CARL RUNGIUS, BY EXCHANGE, 2001.126a.

 I am the Locus #3, 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph.  Loaned by the University of Chicago to MOMA, NY


Adrian Piper, I am the Locus (#4), 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph. COURTESY SMART MUSEUM OF ART, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, PURCHASE, GIFT OF CARL RUNGIUS, BY EXCHANGE, 2001.126a.

 I am the Locus #4, 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph.  Loaned by the University of Chicago to MOMA, NY




I am the Locus #5, 1975, oil stick, photograph. Loaned by the University of Chicago to MOMA, NY




A still photo from Some Reflective Surfaces, 1975-76, two gelatin silver prints and 16 mm film transferred to video (colour, sound).  Collection of Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. 

This is documentation of an audience-oriented performance at the Whitney Museum of North American Art, NY on February 28, 1976.

This still gives an indication of the poise, focus and charisma of the artist.





A visitor to the exhibition in late July studying I/You/Us, 1976






I/You/Us, 1976, photostats mounted on foam core.  Loaned to MOMA by the Institut d’Art Contemporain, Rhone-Alpes



People helped themselves to calling cards which remain on point a quarter of a century later



My Calling (Card(s)) Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties/for Bars and Discos, 1986-1990; mixed medium installation, printed cards, cardholder and stencilled sign.  Loaned by Wellesley College to MOMA, NY





Cornered, 1988; video (colour sound) with monitor, table and chairs, and birth certificate.  Loaned to MOMA, NY by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

  A video monologue with the artist wearing a uniform of a certain elite:  WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant):  insignia (pearls, pearls) and talking about being black. 

The monitor is backed into a corner and the two birth certificates of her father were hung on either side of the monitor.

A celebrated interview.

  This monologue lays out the absurdity of all the consequences of the fact that, in the United States, your race is not what it really is nor what you say it is but what other people assign to you based on the colour of your skin.

The importance being the behaviours and life chances, which the designation of race enforces. 

Designation which blocks everyone’s freedom to pursue their own happiness.


Excerpt of an interview by Dolores Brandon of Adrian Piper (Highlights). October 7, 1992.

DB: How did you come to Cornered?

AP: It had a lot to do with feeling cornered, it really did.

I’ve been trying to figure out what is the right way to deal with the issue of racial identity for a very long time because in the oversimplified American racial scheme of things, there is just no room for someone [biracial who is often taken for white] like me. So, people are always getting surprised or shocked or feeling offended or tricked when they find out that I am black.

I really felt that I had to come to grips with it; I had to dissect it and spell it out and make clear to those around me the implications of racial identification as it functions in this country.

………And that’s how that piece came about. It came from a very personal place.

I felt I was really backed into a corner whether I announced my racial identity, or said nothing, or intimated it. There’s no right way of dealing with it, and so that’s why I did that
DB: So, they’re saying in effect {that art world insists] your work has to tell us that you’re black?

AP: That’s right.

DB: And if it doesn’t, they’re not going to show it because people will be disappointed when they find out?……………………

I do whatever I can to remind people that there is this other side of me: I am not just the race lady who deals with issues of racial identity; there is other work………………the idea that there was a black woman in there at the beginning is very, very difficult for people.



The artist built her confrontational art around themes to concentrate the mind:

The Vanilla Nightmares; Close to Home;  Free; Pretend Not to Know What You Know; Safe etc.




Vanilla Nightmares #20, by Adrian Piper, 1989

The Vanilla Nightmares, 1986-89, charcoal and oil crayon drawn on articles and ads in the New York Times.  Private collections on loan to MOMA, NY.

European-American fantasies and fears about African-Americans.




In 1987, the critic Donald Kuspit published an article, Adrian Piper Self-Healing Through Meta-Art in the journal, Art Criticism.  The artist had rejected this essay for inclusion in a catalogue,  Adrian Piper:  Reflections, 1967-87, for her exhibition at The Alternative Musuem.

The artist, always a fierce defender of her own work, took Donald Kuspit to task for what she saw as his attempt to shut her down.  In response, she treats him like a spider to exterminate.





Close to Home, 1987, 3 of 15 photographs with texts, and audio.  Loaned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to MOMA, NY





Think About It, 1987, mock-up for billboard design;  rephotographed newspaper images, transparent foil, text and watercolour.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY





Ur-Mutter #8, screen printed text on black-and-white photograph mounted on foam core, 1989, (with some light interference).  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin




Free, 1985: appropriated poster sized image of a man lynched, with Land of the free screenprint, 1985.  

A second poster sized appropriated image shows an African American beaten by police with K9 dogs in tow and the screen-printed words Home of the Brave.






Pretend #2, 1990, screen-printed text (Pretend Not To Know What You Know) on three black and white photographs, mounted on foam core.  Loaned by Brooklyn Museum, NY to MOMA, NY

Three mothers.




Detail of Pretend #5, 1990 in which 9 photographs have been screen printed with text, and mounted on foam core.  Siemens Photosammlung. Pinakotek der Moderne loan to MOMA, NY





Pretend #3, 1990; screenprinted text on 4 photographs, mounted on foam core, one photograph of pencil drawing on graph paper.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY







Decide Who You Are #1, Skinned Alive, 1992; screenprinted images and text on three sheets of paper, mounted on foam core.  Private loan to MOMA, NY





Decide Who You Are #21:  Phantom Limbs, 1992; screenprinted images and text on 4 pieces of paper, mounted on foam core.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin







 Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016

Safe, 4 framed photographs and audio (not attached), 1990.  Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin


In the audio recording, the artist spares nobody.  She recounts the things which people say when taken out of their safe zone (a tiny one for most people) on the issue of race.  “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable with this.………..I am just having a lot of trouble with this piece…..”


On a wall support separating exhibition rooms which displayed a large-scale poster of a lynched man,

and a second poster of an African-American being beaten by police also handling K9 dogs,

and the majority of the artist’s thematic works, MOMA placed this sign.




Wall notice on the 6th floor of MOMA during the exhibition of Adrian Piper’s work, spring/summer 2018



The content is, of course, the course and content of the lives of many generations of people, men and women and children.

It is not the image(s) only that disturb.  But the subjects: the people and the stories.

The ideas, assumptions, warning, grief, pain. 

And pathways through and around this.  The challenge to make ourselves free.  



Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady, 1995.  Loaned to MOMA by The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.




























2 thoughts on “ADRIAN PIPER 1: Becoming Free

    1. Merci de votre visite et d’l’avoir lu. Ca me touche.

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