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Adrian Piper Photo

Adrian Piper

American Performance Artist, Installation Artist, and Photographer

Born: September 20, 1948 - New York City, New York
"It seemed that the more clearly and abstractly I learned to think, the more clearly I was able to hear my gut telling me what I needed to do, and the more pressing it became to do it."
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Adrian Piper
"One reason for making and exhibiting a work is to induce a reaction or change in the viewer ... in this sense, the work as such is non-existent except when it functions as a medium of change between the artist and viewer."
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Adrian Piper
"And then we will both be worse off: you, because you will not understand my silence, I, because I will not trust you with my thoughts."
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Adrian Piper
"My work is an act of communication, and it's important to me the way what I assert lands, and where it lands within someone who sees it. On the other hand, I also recognize fully and live by the principle that once the work leaves my studio, I cannot control the effects it has."
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Adrian Piper
"...it is always healthier to be anchored in reality, no matter how painful, and to learn from it."
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Adrian Piper
"Trauma is merely a stopover on the flight from naivety to realism. You get over it."
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Adrian Piper
"Trauma is merely a stopover on the flight from naivety to realism. You get over it."
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Adrian Piper
"I never consciously aim for or even think about any particular connection between my work in art and my work in philosophy. But what I notice in retrospect is an exchange of information between them of a sort that informs both, each in its own way."
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Adrian Piper
"Those who are inclined to exercise their abilities in more than one creative discipline (and philosophy is no less creative than art) are not usually also inclined to the kind of binary, either/or thinking that permits activity in one only at the expense of another."
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Adrian Piper
"Resistance to anomaly is always about a choice to protect the familiar and convenient against the disruptive effect of indifference; and resistance to human anomaly in particular is always about a choice to protect the personal advantages of segregation against the disruptive effect of integration by the Other."
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Adrian Piper
"Dear Friend. I am black. I am sure you did not realise this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark."
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Adrian Piper

Summary of Adrian Piper

Who are you? How do others see you and how do you define your own identity? These are the key questions at the heart of Adrian Piper's practice. Rising to prominence as a pioneering Conceptual, Minimalist and Feminist artist in the New York art scene during the early 1970s, Piper's work raises often uncomfortable questions about racial politics and identity, engages in social critique, and deploys concepts from her parallel career as a philosopher.

Her work is often provocative, and asks her audience to confront truths about themselves and the society they live in. This practice has included performances and street interventions, paintings and sculpture, and events and objects less easily defined by conventional art historical terms. She works across disciplines, forms and conceptual frameworks, positioning her practice as a single endeavour of multiple parts.


  • Piper's political convictions and strategies are often communicated through an engagement with autobiography and/or everyday life, a strategy which speaks to her interest in philosophical notions of the self. Her experiences with LSD as a young artist, instances of everyday racism and institutional marginalisation, and personal tragedy have all formed the basis of a different suite of works or series of performances.
  • Her work most often asks questions about identity and self, perhaps most notably around the question of race. By drawing on her experience as a person of mixed racial heritage her work interrogates the assumptions made about identity as it relates to skin color, revealing the underlying racism and hypocrisy of Western society, particularly in the United States.
  • As a female artist and scholar, Piper's work often also interrogates her experiences of sexism and misogyny. This provided an inspiration for a slightly later generation of independent and multi-disciplinary female artists (including Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman), a legacy that has only recently come to be acknowledged as significant in the development of this kind of work.
  • Piper's work and personal life are blurred, and she maintains a commitment to the significance of symbolic action in her interactions with artistic and educational institutions, authority figures and governments. Perhaps most indicative of this conviction is her insistence that she would not return to the United States after some time abroad until her name had been removed from the "watch list" of potentially subversive passengers.
  • Piper is committed to working across multiple disciplines and areas of scholarship. She maintains her artistic practice alongside a career as an academic within the subject area of philosophy, and sees the two roles as informing each other. Her foundation (The Adrian Piper Research Archive) works to support other interdisciplinary scholars who might similarly struggle to balance two concurrent and interrelated careers.

Biography of Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper Photo

Adrian Piper was born in New York City in 1948 and grew up in a middle-class home in Washington Heights, near the Harlem area of Manhattan. Her father, Daniel Robert Piper, was a lawyer and her mother an administrator in the English Department of the Open Admissions Program at the City College of New York. Piper describes her racial background as 'mixed, like all Americans'. She talks of her father as having a mixed heritage derived from white and light-skinned black property owners, and of her mother as descending from planter-class Jamaican immigrants. This created a complex genealogy she describes as, "1/32 Malagasy (Madagascar), 1/32 African of unknown origin, 1/16 Igbo (Nigeria), and 1/8 East Indian (Chittagong, India [now Bangladesh]), in addition to having predominantly British and German family ancestry". Piper remembers her upbringing as warm and nurturing, writing, "(I) grew up physically inviolate, unable even to imagine the possibility of a breach to my physical integrity." As an adult, Piper credited her unflinching self-confidence in the face of racist and sexist marginalization to this solid grounding, firmly stating: "I do not need your help. I was loved."

Important Art by Adrian Piper

Progression of Art

LSD Self-Portrait from the Inside Out

Angry and jagged forms in acrid yellow, outlined with black and red, expand outwards from a central female figure, forming a tight web that seems to mutate across the surface of the painting. The nude figure in the centre of the canvas is Adrian Piper herself, seen in the reflection of a mirror. Her pose resembles that of a classical female nude, yet this similarity is partially undone by her reduction to a stark black and yellow silhouette.

In around 1965, just as she was beginning her fine art degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Piper experimented with the still-legal drug LSD, which she took about six times over 6 months as part of a personal mission to go "beyond the surface of things". Her strange, hallucinogenic experiences were recorded in the painting series LSD Paintings, made between 1965 and 1967, which document the experience of the drug through forms reminiscent of the then fashionable Op Art, with geometric shapes which seem to swell in and out of the painting in an approximation of the merging of real and imaginary during a trip. Piper made these paintings as an attempt to capture the experience of psychedelic drugs in order to retain and communicate the potential of LSD to teach people about themselves. Piper wrote about observing herself and her experiences "from the inside out", and here brings together both her inner experiences with the drug and the viewpoint of an outsider looking on as she disappears into a trance-like state.

These early paintings are often viewed as separate from her later, more Conceptual works of art, yet as writer Craig Hubert points out in the Observer, "...there can be found in these early drawings and paintings the emergence of a lifelong preoccupation with the mutability of identity, a self-exploration that looks both inward and outward, which is a hallmark of the psychedelic experience." This dual approach, where Piper sees herself both through her own eyes and those of an outside observer, would become a central focus as her practice developed, which as Hubert points out, "allows both a sense of removal and a deeper embrace". The loss of subjectivity through psychoactive drugs also has a long history in Piper's parallel career of philosophy, with the notion of being "outside yourself" brought about by LSD in particular raising interesting philosophical questions about the constitution of self through conscious perception.

Acrylic on Canvas


Catalysis III

In this photograph a young Adrian Piper walks through the streets of New York City wearing a sign emblazoned with the warning "WET PAINT." The work is one of a series of performances made between 1970-3 under the series title Catalysis. In this suite of works the artist takes a series of direct actions aimed at challenging and antagonising her relationships with her audience; here she wore clothing coated in sticky white emulsion paint and took on ordinary activities including a shopping trip to Macy's Department Store.

Piper entices viewers to come in and touch her to find out whether or not the paint is really wet, provoking varied reactions once they realise that it is. The interaction represents a break with the normal parameters of social conduct, introducing an element of danger and the unknown to everyday life. As with many other examples of performance art, the reaction and response from the audience (whether traditionally constituted through attendance at an event or by simply being on the street at the same time Piper walks through) is as much part of the performance as the action itself.

Throughout the Catalysis series Piper questions the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, and documents what happens when they are transgressed. Other public actions included walking the streets and travelling on the train in peak hour in clothes that had been soaked in eggs, milk, vinegar and cod for a week, testing the public's reaction to someone 'unwashed', and travelling around the city 'silenced' with a towel stuffed in her mouth. The title of the series of works makes reference to a chemical reaction triggered by a catalyst, with Piper's actions becoming the trigger to spark a reaction between herself and her audience. Throughout the 1960s and 70s Piper established a reputation for causing deliberate provocation amongst her viewers, actions that influenced a generation of artists that followed including the Young British Artists movement and later performance artists such as William Pope L.

Silver Print, Performance


The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear

In this monochrome, drawn-on photograph, a shadowy figure emerges from the darkness wearing dark sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, captioned in the top corner with the phrase, "I embody everything you most hate and fear." The figure in the image is Piper, in drag as her male alter ego 'Mythic Being', whose identity she assumes through wearing a fake moustache, afro wig and sunglasses.

Piper created the character of "Mythic Being" over a period of two years between 1973 and 1975. Disguising herself as a light-skinned and working class black man, Piper wandered around the streets of New York reciting various mantras that were lifted from her teenage diary, including the caption seen here, and various other angst-ridden phrases including, "surrounded and constrained", and "God please give me the strength to withdraw - I can't be hurt anymore - I've been hurt too much. Please help me preserve myself". Her performances were documented through photographs, drawings and videos, including this work. Many of the different forms of documentation and accompanying information (such as museum wall labels) also tracked public reactions to her character and his behaviour.

Piper's black male character deliberately embodied a marginalised, outsider position, which drew attention to the difficulties faced by people who share those aspects of identity in their everyday life. Yet Piper also found in the role a certain emancipation, as writer John P. Bowles explains: "Suspended between difference and identification, the Mythic Being becomes, in Piper's account, a paradoxical figure of liberation. Dressed as a man of uncertain race, the artist could act in ways that, as a black woman, she was expected not to". Piper elaborated on this in a description of her behaviour, writing, "I swagger, stride, lope, lower my eyebrows, raise my shoulders, sit with my legs wide apart on the subway..." In breaking out of her usual persona Piper highlights the restrictive ways women, and particularly African American women, were expected to behave. The tension that comes from Piper's assumption of this role, plays against both her gender and the way she was usually perceived by people of different ethnicities in her day-to-day life. This pioneering break with prescribed gender and racial norms and assertion of her own right to define how she is perceived influenced a raft of later artists, including Cindy Sherman's theatrical photographs, Sarah Lucas' "ladette" posturing and Glenn Ligon's powerful text art.

Oil Crayon on Gelatin Silver Print


Self Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features

A carefully drawn female figure stares out from this pencil drawing with a confrontational expression, challenging the viewer to address her directly. This dramatic, head-on portrait resembles the sombre tone and theatrical composition of German Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer's famous Self Portrait at 28 (1500). In both images the figure is curtained by a triangular frame of long hair, although Piper's self-portrait is one in which, as she says, she exaggerates her "Negroid features."

As an artist of mixed-race origin Piper has addressed issues of racism and prejudice from the position of both "black" and "white" racial identities, describing herself as a black woman who could pass for white, a situation which has often placed her in complicated social scenarios. In this self-portrait Piper illustrates the way she views herself, as an African American woman, which may stand in distinction from the common ways she is perceived by others in public. This self-portrait accentuates the physical characteristics that indicate "blackness" that are not usually read in relation to the artist. The ability to pass as white is one which has a complicated racial history, and Piper here deliberately invokes the debates around racial physiology and biological determinism that have been the basis of racist policies and attitudes throughout history.

As with many of her previous artworks, Piper sets up a distinction here between inner and outer worlds, drawing attention to the psychological conflicts between the way we wish to be seen and the way we are seen by others. The deliberately provocative stare within the self-portrait reflects the confrontational nature of much of Piper's art, which challenges us to re-examine and address deeply ingrained and systematically naturalised beliefs about race, nationality, and belonging. Later in the 1980s Piper produced a series of small calling cards (My Calling Card, 1989-90) with a statement beginning with, "Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark..." a statement that both clarified her desire to identify as a black and confronted the prevalent racism she observed and experienced on a regular basis.

Pencil on Paper


Funk Lessons

This image is a still taken from one of Piper's staged performances, Funk Lessons, a series of participatory social events where Piper taught white audience members about the history of the predominantly black musical genre funk, and gave instructions on how to dance to it. Reflecting on the history of funk music in a series of essays titled 'Notes on Funk', Piper wrote, "Funk constitutes a language of interpersonal communication and collective self-expression that has its origins in African tribal music and dance and is the result of the increasing interest of contemporary black musicians and the populace in those sources elicited by the civil rights movements of the 1960s and early 1970s."

The work draws a distinction between black and white cultural forms of expression through dance, where Piper sees social dance in white culture as "viewed in terms of achievement, social grace or competence", in contrast with black culture, with its history of a "collective and participatory means of self-transcendence and social union ... (which is) much more fully integrated into daily life."

Piper drew on funk's democratic, social potential with these performances, inviting audiences to take up an active role in the making of the artwork. This was enabling them to, as she writes, "get down and party together." This integrative, immersive approach to making art was aimed at breaking down racial prejudices by encouraging a positive and celebratory attitude towards black culture and the important contributions it has (and continues to) make towards the construction of modern American culture and, by extension, society. Such group-led activities were pioneering and paved the way for other artistic movements in the following decades, with connections to be drawn between Piper's work and the socially driven Relational Aesthetics artistic practices, for example. This work is also an example of Piper's commitment to accessible forms of creating and enjoying art, seen here through the relatively informal space of the workshop, but also through her earlier street interventions.

Still from a color video, 15 minutes 17 seconds


Safe #1

Piper made these photographs in 1990 as part of a multimedia installation aimed at addressing deeply-rooted racial issues in America. A series of images featuring smiling African and African-American families, including the ones seen here, were taken from magazines and overlaid with positive phrases in red text, such as "We are among you", and "We are around you". But to accompany the photographs in the gallery space, Piper recorded her own voice reciting various possible negative reactions to the imagery, which included statements like, "I'm sorry, I just don't feel comfortable with this. I mean, of course, I appreciate the artist's good intentions. I really do. But I am just having a lot of trouble with this piece."

In juxtaposing conflicting reactions to such positive images Piper encourages viewers to reconsider deeply ingrained attitudes that create a barrier against social inclusion and acceptance. The work deliberately challenges viewers to face their own uncomfortable attitudes that may not usually be aired in public in such a stark fashion. Through the tension between the voiceover and the images, the hypocrisy at the heart of race relations in America is evoked. But rather than simply making gallery visitors feel uneasy, Piper's intent was to encourage greater acceptance of one another by inviting viewers to see that underneath surface appearances there are shared objectives of stable family relationships, community and belonging that is being celebrated in these (slightly corny) images. Museum of Modern Art curator Christophe Cherix sums it up when he writes, "Safe is a transformative experience. You'll leave it a different person that you entered it."

Photograph - Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive. Foundation Berlin. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin


Everything #2.8

This images shows a middle-aged couple whose faces have been erased, giving the image a macabre, ghostly edge and obscuring their true identities. Printed over their faces is the text "Everything will be taken away", a phrase inspired by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous quote, "Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free."

Piper made this work as part of a larger series titled Everything, begun in 2003, and picked up again in 2007 once she had established a new life in Berlin. The series explores powerful themes of loss, disorientation and reinvention. The series began with a street performance, which tested audience reactions to the statement inspired by Solzhenitsyn, later leading on to installation and image-based works. Throughout the series Piper's ambiguous phrase appeared on a range of personal and public imagery, including photographs of political leaders and the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, inviting its viewers to consider their interpretation of the phrase in relation to a varied range of contexts.

In this series of works, along with much of her practice, Piper neatly collapses together personal and private worlds. On one level of meaning she conveys and comments on the loss and sense of exile she has experienced in her life as a mixed-race American, while she also invites viewers to consider loss in a wider, political sense by suggesting some of the fear and instability surrounding refugees, immigrants and non-white Americans. Yet by referencing Solzhenitsyn (who was himself a political prisoner in the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1956), there is also a sense of hope and artistic endeavour beneath loss, suggesting the possibility of moving beyond the past and beginning again.

Photocopied photograph on graph paper, sanded with sandpaper, overprinted with inkjet ink - Private Collection


What Will Become of Me

This image shows a row of jars lined up neatly on a shelf. A series of taller containers contain murky, ambiguous dark matter while two smaller ones on the right of the frame hold a lighter substance. These jars are flanked by two frames of written text. The serial nature of their arrangement and suggestion of labelling gives a clinical, scientific quality to the display which perhaps conflicts with the intimate content within the jars. The tall containers hold cuttings of Piper's hair, collected over the past few decades as it gradually fades to grey, whilst the smaller ones archive the artist's nail and skin clippings.

The written document to the left of the shelf is a written account of Piper's personal circumstances in the year 1985 that led her to begin the work, a series of events that included the breakdown of her marriage, the death of her father, and the loss of her job. On the right is a "Statement of Intent" written in 1989, outlining Piper's intention to donate the archival artwork to New York's Museum of Modern Art after her death. Various documents of the installation over the years reveal the minute patterns of change it has undergone as the artist's hair has gradually shifted from black to grey, and the quantities of matter accumulated has slowly increased. In this work Piper deliberately sets up several conflicts between private and public by displaying intimate bodily material in an almost clinical manner, contrasted against intensely personal details from her private life rendered in a detached, remote manner.

Writer Deirdre Smith suggests that in this work Piper is searching for some sense of historical permanence, collecting these traces as a way of asserting "I am alive" amidst a period of significant personal loss by "literally inserting herself into [MoMA's] collection." Beneath the surface, Piper echoes to the viewer the inevitable and unknown processes of gradual loss that come with living life. As Smith writes, "...as certain as the document looks and feels it does not seek to answer the unknowable questions that accompany life and death."

Framed Text, Glass Jars, Shelf, Hair, Fingernails and Skin - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Adrian Piper
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Kara Walker
    Kara Walker
  • Ellen Gallagher
    Ellen Gallagher
  • Glenn Ligon
    Glenn Ligon
  • No image available
    William Pope L.
  • No image available
    Hayley Newman
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Adrian Piper Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church
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First published on 05 Jun 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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