Considering the canon of the conceptual movement over the course of the 20th Century, the work of artist Adrian Piper figures in a particularly resonant and explosive way. Working at the forefront of the conceptual project from the late 1960’s onwards, Piper’s work has long confronted and framed questions of race, identity and discrimination in ways that push the viewer into a deep, lasting engagement with concepts and structures of institutionalized racism. This mode of practice, and the artist’s gradual movements towards it over the course of her career sits at the core of her current career retrospective at MoMA, an exhibition that manages to frame the artist’s work historically and socially, while using its conceptual payload to push the viewer into that same sense of identification.
“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,” Piper wrote in 1996 of her evolution in practice, “and the more pressing it became to do it.” That sense of urgency, and of the philosophical roots that drove it (Piper trained rigorously in Philosophy in the early years of her career and still runs the Berlin Journal of Philosophy), sits at the core of the show, an expansive selection of over 290 works, including drawings, paintings, photographs, multimedia installations, videos, and performances that confront race and its ongoing impact on the state of power and political relations.
The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to experience her provocative and wide-ranging artwork. Occupying the Museum’s entire sixth floor and the Marron Atrium, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016 charts the artist’s five-decade career, including early paintings inspired by the use of LSD; key projects such as Mythic Being (1973), in which Piper has merged her male alter ego with entries from her teenage journals; My Calling (Card) #1 and My Calling (Card) #2 (1986), business card–sized, text-based works that confront the reader’s own racist or sexist tendencies; and What It’s Like, What It Is #3(1991), a large-scale mixed-media installation addressing racist stereotypes.
Throughout, Piper’s ability to understand how identity is framed sits at the core of her work, and how her anticipation of various social conditions of perceptions allows her to embrace and twist the languages and historical modes of race into new arrangements. Piper appears throughout the show as an orchestrator of situations and environments, each time driving the viewer through a dense and elaborate emotional and social landscape that sees them come out on the other side with a more nuanced understanding of the subtle elements and dynamics that accumulate as a composite look at the state of race and politics in America, a vision more important than ever in post-Trump America.
The show is on view through July 2oth.
— D. Creahan
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 [MoMA]