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Adrian Piper Photo

Adrian Piper Artworks

American Performance Artist, Installation Artist, and Photographer

Born: September 20, 1948 - New York City, New York

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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York City

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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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