Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Institutions, 1965-2016

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.

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Institutions, 1965-2016

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
New York, NY
Through July 22


By Amy Kaeser

The sixth floor (and a large installation on the second floor) of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is currently dedicated to the conceptual artist, Adrian Piper. Her name is synonymous with the 1960-70 movement of Conceptual Art as a foundation figure along with canonical artists like Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt. As an artist and philosopher, Piper’s contribution to art is through a deep investigation of arts potential. As a chronological exhibition, the curators of Piper’s show, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Institutions, 1965-2016, thoughtfully present works from her early career–investigations into painting influenced by the use of psychotropic drugs in the 1960s–to recent works from 2016. Piper’s work is known for its strict adherence to principles of conceptualism through the use of text, photography, various modes of communication, and diagrams. The works exhibited at MoMA celebrates Piper’s contributions to the arts and exposes the viewer to her practice as both a conceptual artist as well as an artist in a conversation not only with herself but with family, friends and those whom she comes in contact with on a daily basis.

Conceptual Art (capital ‘C’, capital ‘A’) is defined as a movement that emerges in the 1960s concentrated in New York, NY. Conceptualism’s main goal is to interrogate art and art making, meaning art about ideas where the outcome is secondary to the process of creating the object. This is a paraphrased definition and for further reading see Piper, Kosuth or LeWitt to delve into the nuances of the movement itself. For Piper, Conceptualisms ability to look in on itself and ask questions of its own nature (art for art’s sake) was the root of her early practice, notably Drawings about Paper and Writing about Words #48 (1967) in which Piper creates a visual representation of conceptual attitudes to art in the late 1960s.

The black and white photographic series Catalysis (1970) introduces Piper into the image and frames her as the focal point of the work. But rather than a self-portrait, Piper presents herself as an object. Catalysis IV (1970) has Piper walking in the direction of the photographer through a crowded street in New York. What usually is an innocuous action, walking becomes warped by Piper’s donning a “Wet Paint” sign around her neck and wearing clothing soaked in white paint still dripping onto the sidewalk and anyone who came too close to her passing by. The investigation of objects in public spaces; the “object” being Piper’s body, and the direct avoidance of the public passing her paint-soaked clothes, is for Piper the interrogation of identity, her own being of mixed race and her ability to “white-pass” in public.

Identity, invisibility, and the effect of “passing” for Piper and women of color is a central theme of many of her works. My Calling (Card) #1 and My Calling (Card) #2 (1986) is a series of small, business-type cards. Printed on the cards Piper states in no uncertain terms to not touch her, that, yes, she is black, and that she would like to be left alone at the bar. Piper’s intention here is to confront the viewer with their own racist or sexist tendencies. The works display in the MoMA’s gallery is accompanied by hard copies of the calling cards for the viewer to take with them (for future use) and in this current socio-political climate will come in handy.

The epic photo-collage, mixed media work The Mythic Being expands Piper’s confrontation of identity and race in a turbulent American culture circa 1970. Piper’s male alter-ego makes “his” first appearance in 1973 and will, in some form or another, be a central figure in Piper’s works for several years. Captured in black and white photography, personal ads in the Village Voice—a printed publication in New York—The Mythic Being looks you straight in the eye and says the things you may think but cannot say. Piper wears an Afro wig, sunglasses, and a mustache while performing conventionally masculine behaviors in a public space to gauge the average reaction of the general public.

In a twist of fate, Piper’s work speaks volumes in this age of Trump where a man in power is saying words unimpeded by social decorum and even basic social behaviors are ignored, The Mythic Being is a reflection of the “fears” white America has with the black body occupying the same space as them. The work rings true today as much as it did forty years ago.

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Institutions, 1965-2016 is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York until July 22, 2018, and will next open at The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles October 7, 2018 – January 6, 2019.

Adrian Piper is an American conceptual artist and philosopher, receiving her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard University in 1981. Currently residing in Berlin, Germany, Piper’s works are exhibited internationally and are a mix of traditional and non-traditional media.

Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin:


The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA):


The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles:


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