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Wikipedia About Adrian Piper

Adrian Margaret Smith Piper (born September 20, 1948) is a first-generation conceptual artist and analytic philosopher who was born in New York City and lived for many years on Cape Cod, Massachusetts before emigrating from the United States. Since 2005 she has lived and worked in Berlin, where she runs the APRA Foundation Berlin and edits The Berlin Journal of Philosophy. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Adrian Piper, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

“Dear Friend/I am black./I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark.” Thus read the opening lines of Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Card) #1 (1986–1990), a short message typed on a note card. Whenever the artist found herself in the presence of racist behavior by someone not cognizant of her mixed-race identity, she approached the perpetrator and silently handed over one of the calling cards. The “performance” was designed as a rational alternative to racial self-identification, which, Piper states elsewhere on the card, had caused people to perceive her as “pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate.” But is such a textual act any less forceful than direct verbalization or protest?

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1948, Piper came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Minimalism and Conceptual Art were irrevocably transforming the topography of artistic practice and providing the young artist with crucial lessons.1 As exemplified in the aforementioned work, however, her art has always sought to transform the strategies of direct address and physical presence devised by the neo-avant-gardes into those of social criticism and political confrontation. And confrontation, as the artist has stated, is “therapeutic and also catalytic.”2

In 1972, while a doctoral student in philosophy at Harvard, Piper began performing the “Mythic Being,” a male alter ego with an afro, a pencil mustache, dark shades, a villainous grin, and an incessant cigarette in his mouth. In resulting performances, photographic documentation, and drawings, the Mythic Being enacted various masquerades of aggression and intimidation as well as philosophical reflection. The Mythic Being: I/You (Her) (1974), in the Walker Art Center’s collection, consists of ten identical black-and-white photographs that show Piper’s smiling face and a female companion in the lower left corner. Against chill black backgrounds are floating talk bubbles, filled in with the artist’s soliloquy, which progresses from one photograph to the next. It narrates a friendship gone sour and obliquely suggests that the liaison between the two women had been quite intimate but met with a disastrous end. In one place, it is even implied that the artist’s race might have been a factor in the relationship’s demise. As a range of raw emotions—from regret, grief, and bitterness to rage—are revealed with an escalating intensity, Piper’s face is gradually transformed with ink additions, ending as the full-blown, menacing Mythic Being.

The practice of drawing on preexisting imagery takes an especially visceral turn in the Vanilla Nightmares series, which Piper began in 1986 and continued until 1989.3 In it, black figures drawn with charcoal and oil crayon emerge on the pages of the New York Times like spectres suddenly assuming physical forms to cross the threshold of visibility and invade the comfort zone of reason. They are summoned by headlines dealing with race and its perilous politics or by egregiously exoticist or sexist pandering to consumer desires in advertisements. In one work, a lone, black, “savage” male figure creeps up on an impassive female model featured in a Bloomingdale’s ad titled “Street Safari,” an urban fashion supposedly inspired by the romantic colonial imagination of wild nature. In another, a scowling and fist-waving mob appears next to the headline “Affirmative Action Upheld by High Court as a Remedy for Past Job Discrimination,” and letters spelling “What if …?” are scrawled across the masthead. These disquieting, sometimes salacious, images tap into and give form to the enduring cultural fascination with slavery and black magic as well as racialized myths of miscegenation (consensual or otherwise) that are still seething just beneath the surface of our collective unconscious.

My Calling (Card) #1 closes with a twist: “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.” Irony and melancholia infuse the sentence, reminding us that it is precisely through discomfort that Piper’s art cuts into the fortress of our injured consciousness, and such discomfort just might help to cure it.

  1. This point is argued in Maurice Berger’s essay, “Styles of Radical Will: Adrian Piper and the Indexical Present,” in Maurice Berger, ed., Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1999), 12–32.

  2. Maurice Berger, “The Critique of Pure Racism: An Interview with Adrian Piper,” in Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, 80.

  3. There are a total of twenty-one pieces in the Vanilla Nightmares series, and three (#3, #9, #10) are in the Walker collection.

Chong, Doryun. “Adrian Piper.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center