Adrian Piper: ‘A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1956-2016’ at MoMA

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Adrian Piper: ‘A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1956-2016’ at MoMA

It is difficult to encapsulate all of the different messages expressed by Adrian Piper throughout her 50-year career as a conceptual artist, but a current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art comes close. For the first time in MoMA’s history, the entire top floor exhibit space has been reserved for a single living artist, and Adrian Piper is the recipient of this honor, with A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965-2016.

One could argue that it serves as a retrospective of a single individual’s life and subsequent revelations through her art. But it is far from indulgent; just as the work is deeply personal, it is also strikingly universal – confronting issues of race, gender, and sociopolitics that resonate with all of us.

Self Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981

Piper was born to a mixed race, upper-middle-class family in New York City in 1948. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1969 with an A.A. in Fine Art and a concentration in painting and sculpture, and her initial artwork reflects this traditional training. But even throughout her early period, rebellion from the mainstream can be observed. For example, The Barbie Doll Drawings 1967; unlike typical figure drawings, the parts and pieces of the doll’s anatomy are deconstructed and reassembled in a surrealistic series comprised of 35 drawings.

The Barbie Doll Drawings, 1967 (Selection of 2 Drawings)

It was evident from the beginning that she was not interested in using her talent to create aesthetically ‘safe’ art.

While her career as an artist was taking off, Piper was also continuing her education; just five years after graduating from SVA, she received her B.A. in Philosophy from the City College of New York. (She would then go on to Harvard University, where she received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in the subject.)

As her philosophical studies progressed her art, too, became more conceptual. Conceptual art was founded on the idea that the message of the artist is of utmost importance, more than the finished product, or the medium through which the artist chooses to convey that message – painting, sculpture, drawing, performance, video, installation, soundworks, photo-documentation, etc.

Both a thinker and creator, Piper was naturally taken by this method, and has used every tool from the aforementioned arsenal throughout her career.

Art for the Artworld Surface Pattern (1976)

She created pieces designed to immerse the attendee in her thoughts; literal boxes in which a person can be intimately surrounded by a single message. For instance, Art for the Artworld Surface Pattern (1976); the outside of this makeshift room within a room is nondescript, painted solid white. But inside, every surface is covered with images taken from newspapers documenting human atrocities taking place all over the world, with the words “Not A Performance” stenciled onto them. A recording of Piper’s voice plays through a speaker, as she expresses her frustrations with first-world apathy toward the rest of the world’s suffering. Of the many poignant soundbites, she expresses, “As far as I’m concerned, all of this is just politics. And politics is an art.”

Vote/Emote 1990, (Selection of one booth)

Some of Piper’s works even invoke the participation of museumgoers; at the entrance of the exhibit, stands an installation called Vote/Emote (1990). It is a row of four black booths, inside each of which hangs a lightbox displaying an image from the civil rights movement. Just beneath each image, lies a notebook with a pencil and a prompt, ‘List the fears of what we might know about you’; ‘List the fears about what we might think of you’; ‘List the fears of how we might treat you’; ‘List the fears of what we might do with your accumulations’.

A selection of responses includes: ‘Like a second class citizen just because of the color of my skin;’ ‘As one of “them” which in part is me’; ‘Fat, rich, Jewish, Gay’. The numerous and varied answers scrawled in the notebooks give insight into not only what makes us all unique, but what makes us all the same. In spite of the many ways that our livelihoods can be threatened due to one’s race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc., we all have fears – we are all human. This is what makes Piper’s work so timeless and so necessary. There are hundreds of equally thought-provoking pieces on display in this exhibit, waiting to be experienced. Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1956-2016 will be on display through July 22 2018.