Adrian Piper is an artist and academic who has been in the vanguard of several significant movements in contemporary art since beginning her career in the late 1960s. Piper's works range from photographs that document her performance-art pieces to video installations that guide viewers into examining their own prejudices and preconceptions about women, African Americans, and human kinship. "I want my work to help people stop being racist whether they ask for it or not," she said in the Winston-Salem Journal. "Just as movies and encounter groups can change people, so, maybe, can my art."
Born in 1948 in New York City, Piper grew up in Harlem and attended a progressive, integrated private school. By the time she earned an associate degree from the School of Visual Arts in 1969 she had become associated with a circle of artists, musicians, and writers in downtown Manhattan's vibrant art scene whose daring exploits helped define the American cultural landscape for decades to come. One of her first jobs as was an assistant to conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, and while working toward her bachelor's degree at the City College of the City University of New York she began to hone her skills as a performance artist. This involved carefully staged and documented events, such as striding down New York City streets wearing a shirt covered in wet paint with a sign bearing the caution, "Wet Paint," or riding the subway while wearing clothes that she had soaked in a horrific mixture of raw egg, cod-liver oil, and vinegar. There was also the Mythic Being, an angry, swaggering black male—actually Piper wearing an Afro wig and mustache—that stalked the urban landscape. "In an era when some politicians and much of the popular press seemed to be stoking racial fear," noted Holland Cotter in the New York Times, "she was turning fear into farce—but serious, and disturbing, farce, intended to punch a hole in pervasive fictions while acknowledging their power."
Explored Racial Issues through Art
Piper earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1974 and entered graduate school at Harvard University to pursue a master's in the subject. She completed her graduate degree in 1977 and studied at the University of Heidelberg, then returned to Harvard to begin doctoral studies. She was granted a doctorate in 1981. Her most notable performance project during this period was Funk Lessons, staged at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California Institute of Art, among other places, over several months in 1983 and 1984. Tom Patterson, writing in the the Winston-Salem Journal, explained the piece as "a series of scholarly, participatory demonstrations in which she attempted to teach largely white audiences how to dance to funk music. These grew out of her observation that many whites seemed uncomfortable with the music's basis in black working-class culture, its references to sexual activity and its related body movements."
Piper was a light-skinned African-American female, and occasionally found herself in uncomfortable situa- tions inside the New York art scene, which she turned into another performance piece in the late 1980s. This project was titled My Calling (Card) # 1: A Reactive Guerilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties (1986-90). Its singular element was the printed card that Piper sometimes handed out, which read: "Dear Friend: I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative or socially inappropriate. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me."
Many of Piper's pieces have been documented on video, dating all the way back to her Mythic Being project in 1973. Later in her career, she began to examine the "one-drop" theory of race, a discredited idea that a person with one drop of blood from an African ancestor was in fact classifiable as a black person. Piper's 1988 work Cornered addressed this idea. "Facing us through the camera, speaking with the soothing composure of a social worker or grief counselor, she said that, according to statistics, if we were white Americans, chances were very high that we carried at least some black blood," wrote Cotter in the New York Times. "That was the legacy of slavery. She knew we would be upset. She was sorry. But [it] was the truth."
Taught Philosophy at Leading Universities
Piper further explored the conundrum of race in America in her 1991 essay, "Passing for White, Passing for Black." In the first paragraph, she recounted her first social encounter at Harvard when she entered the graduate program in philosophy. "The most famous and highly respected member of the faculty observed me for awhile from a distance and then came forward," she wrote. "Without introduction preamble he said to me with a triumphant smirk, ‘Miss Piper, you're about as black as I am.’" She recounted that she was at a loss for the proper response, feeling that the remark was so distasteful on so many levels. In the same essay she also related a pervasive sense of alienation from both the white and black worlds that had followed her throughout much of her life. "My family was one of the very last middle-class, light-skinned black families left in our Harlem neighborhood after most had fled to the suburbs," she wrote. "Visibly black working-class kids my age yanked my braids and called me ‘pale-face.’ Many of them thought I was white, and treated me accordingly."
At a Glance …
Born Adrian Margaret Smith Piper on September 20, 1948, in New York, NY. Education: School of Visual Arts, AA, 1969; City College of the City University of New York, BA (summa cum laude), 1974; Harvard University, MA, 1977, PhD, 1981; also attended the University of Heidelberg, 1977-78.
Career: Assistant to artist Sol LeWitt, late 1960s; performance artist, 1968-88; video artist, 1988—; University of Michigan, assistant professor of philosophy, 1979-82, 1984-86; Stanford University, Mellon Research Fellow, 1982-84; Georgetown University, associate professor of philosophy, 1986-88; University of California—San Diego, associate professor of philosophy, 1988-90; Wellesley College, professor of philosophy, 1990-2008; Royal Danish Academy of Art, visiting guest professor, 2005-07; Adrian Piper Research Archive, director.
Memberships: American Association of University Professors, American Philosophical Association, American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs, North American Kant Society.
Awards: Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1979, 1998), the National Endowment for the Arts (1979, 1982), the Guggenheim Foundation (1989), and the J. Paul Getty Foundation 1998-99. Skowhegan Medal for Sculptural Installation, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1995.
Addresses: Home—Berlin, Germany. Office—Adrian Piper Research Archive, Postfach 54 02 04, D-10042 Berlin, Germany. Gallery—Elizabeth Dee Gallery, 545 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.
Over the years Piper has held a number of teaching appointments at such schools as Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Michigan. In 1990 she joined the faculty of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. With this post, Piper became the first tenured African-American female professor of philosophy in the United States, and for a time was one of just three black professors of philosophy in the nation. Her field of specialty is the work of eighteenth-century German theorist Immanuel Kant, but she has also taught courses that delve into the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and other tenets of Eastern philosophy. After a two-year stint at the Royal Danish Academy of Art as visiting guest professor, however, Piper's position was terminated by Wellesley in 2008 when she refused to return to the United States because her name surfaced on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's Suspicious Traveler Watch List.
Fluent in German, Piper lives in Berlin where she serves as director of the Adrian Piper Research Archive. On her official Web site is a "Dear Editor" letter in which she enjoins those who write about her not to describe her as "an African American artist. Please don't call me an African American philosopher…. Please don't call me an artist and philosopher who happens to be black and a woman…Please don't call me a philosopher and artist who happens to be African American and female." After dozens more variations on these descriptive terms, she concludes, "I write to inform you that I have earned the right to be called an artist. I have earned the right to be called a philosopher. I have earned the right to be called an artist and philosopher. I have earned the right to be called a philosopher and artist."
Talking to Myself: The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object (in English and Italian), Marilena Bonomo, 1975.
Colored People, Bookworks, 1991.
Decide Who You Are, Paula Cooper Gallery, 1992.
Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968-1992, Volume II: Selected Writings in Art Criticism, 1967-1992, MIT Press, 1996.
One Man (sic), One Work, New York Cultural Center, New York City, 1971.
Adrian Piper, Gallery One, Montclair State College, Montclair, NJ, 1976.
Adrian Piper at Matrix 56, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, 1980.
Adrian Piper: Reflections 1967-1987, Alternative Museum, New York (retrospective), 1987.
Out of the Corner, Whitney Museum of American Art, Film and Video Gallery, New York, 1990.
Space, Time and Reference 1967-1970, John Weber Gallery, New York, 1992.
Decide Who You Are, Grey Art Gallery, New York, 1992.
Installations by Adrian Piper, New Langton Arts, San Francisco, 1993.
Cornered/Decide Who You Are, SUNY Buffalo, New York, 1994.
Ashes to Ashes, John Weber Gallery, New York, 1995.
Who Are You? Selected Works by Adrian Piper, Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, 1997.
Adrian Piper: A Retrospective 1965-2000, Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, 1998.
MEDI(t)Ations: Adrian Piper's Videos, Installations, Performances and Soundworks, 1968-1992, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998.
The Mythic Being, 1972-1975, Thomas Erben Gallery, New York, 1999.
The Color Wheel Series: First Adhyasa. Annomayakosha, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2000.
Adrian Piper: seit 1965, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2002.
Adrian Piper Videos, ARTSADMIN, London, 2004.
Adrian Piper, Index, Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm, 2005.
Adrian Piper: The Mythic Being, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, 2006.
Art Journal, Winter 2001, p. 63.
Nation, February 3, 1997, p. 25.
New York Times, March 30, 2008, p. 1.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), October 7, 2001, p. E1.
"Curriculum Vitae," adrianpiper.com, http:// http://www.adrianpiper.com/docs/CV_rev_12_07_o.pdf (October 27, 2008).
"Dear Editor," Adrian Piper Research Archive, http://www.adrianpiper.com/dear_editor.shtml (accessed October 27, 2008).
Piper, Adrian, "Passing for White, Passing for Black," Frontline, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/readings/piper.html (accessed October 27, 2008).