Adrian Piper

Born 1948, New York, New York

This Is Not the Documentation of a Performance, by Adrian Piper, 1976
Adrian Piper, This Is Not the Documentation of a Performance, 1976  

Through performance, video installation, photography, drawing, and text, Adrian Piper provocatively analyzes cultural biases and their impact on the individual. While studying art at the School of Visual Arts in New York and philosophy at City College of New York in the late 1960s, Piper became an important early practitioner of conceptual art and, later, an analytic philosopher, receiving her PhD from Harvard University in 1981.1 Using idea-based artworks to critically enact race, gender, and class identities, Piper challenges the universal and neutral subject positions so often assumed in art, philosophy, and mass media.

In the early 1970s Piper carried out numer­ous public performances in which she dramati­cally transformed her appearance by covering herself with wet paint (Catalysis III, 1970) or by dressing as a young man of color, donning an Afro wig and moustache (Mythic Being, 1973–75) to expose xenophobic and hostile reactions among those she encountered. In 1976 Piper made This Is Not the Documentation of a Perfor­mance by rephotographing a newspaper article about a protest against the eviction of Hispanic families from a Manhattan building and replacing the text of one of the picketers' signs with "This Is Not a Performance." This work subtly rebukes those who dismissed Piper's prior performances as fictions, implying that her actions, like those of the protesters, rendered visible experiences of injustice and alienation often obscured by decorum, social norms, and those in power.

For her Vanilla Nightmares series of charcoal drawings, Piper appropriated pages from the New York Times and added figural scenes that elaborate and contradict the newspaper's discussion of racial issues. Vanilla Nightmares #10 (1986) shows the hand of a large, dark figure wrapping around the neck of a smaller, lighter figure with deep wrinkles, upturned eyes, and a gaping mouth. The figures, in their awkward and threatening embrace, cover most of the page, but Piper leaves sections translucent to highlight a story about white farmers profiting in Zimbabwe and another with the headline "U.S. Goal in South Africa: Leverage." The opposition between the articles and the drawings ("vanilla night­mares") emphasizes the white privilege that underlies the newspaper's point of view. 

From left to right: four works by Haim Steinbach: "Shelf Arrangement for the Wachtel's Stairway, Hampton Bays, New York," 1982, "Shelf Arrangement for Helene, Sydney, Amy and Eric's Playroom, New Rochelle, New York," 1982, "Shelf Arrangement for Emily's Room, Ossining, New York," 1983, and "Shelf Arrangement for a Cottage in South Hampton, New York," 1983, Zoe Leonard, "Untitled," 1984/1991, and Adrian Piper, "Cornered," 1988. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
From left to right: four works by Haim Steinbach: Shelf Arrangement for the Wachtel's Stairway, Hampton Bays, New York, 1982, Shelf Arrangement for Helene, Sydney, Amy and Eric's Playroom, New Rochelle, New York, 1982, Shelf Arrangement for Emily's Room, Ossining, New York, 1983, and Shelf Arrangement for a Cottage in South Hampton, New York, 1983, Zoe Leonard, Untitled, 1984/1991, and Adrian Piper, Cornered, 1988. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

The video installation Cornered (1988) extends Piper's interrogation of race directly to viewers. On a video monitor positioned defen­sively in a corner behind an upturned table, Piper, speaking to the viewer, states: "I have no choice, I'm cornered. If I tell you who I am, you become antagonized. If I don't tell you who I am, I have to pass for white, and why should I have to do that?" She argues for calling oneself black as a moral decision, and after stating that most "white" Americans have black ancestry, she asks viewers what they will do with this information. Casting further doubt on the visual fictions of whiteness and blackness, Piper's installation includes her father's two birth certificates, one identifying him as "white" and the other as "octoroon" (a historical term for fair-skinned African Americans).2 Representative of Piper's larger project, Cornered entangles viewers spatially and intellectually in the moral, social, and political ramifications of racial determina­tion. In "General Statement about My Work" (1989), Piper wrote, "I try to construct a con­crete, immediate and personal relationship between me and the viewer that locates us within the network of political cause and effect."3 Her diverse projects since the early 1970s have affirmed her desire and conviction that art operate as a catalyst for change.

—Ruth Erickson


  • Piper's artistic production has continued along­side and in dialogue with her extensive studies and teaching of philosophy. She has taught philosophy at Georgetown University; Harvard University; the Uni­versity of Michigan; Stanford University; the University of California, San Diego; and Wellesley College. In 1987 she became the first tenured African American woman professor in the field of philosophy.
  • Kobena Mercer, "Decentering and Recentering: Adrian Piper's Spheres of Influence," in Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, ed. Maurice Berger (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1999), 56.
  • Piper, quoted in Laura Cottingham, "The 'Autobiog­raphy' of Adrian Piper," in Adrian Piper, 61.
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Piper's artistic production has continued along­side and in dialogue with her extensive studies and teaching of philosophy. She has taught philosophy at Georgetown University; Harvard University; the Uni­versity of Michigan; Stanford University; the University of California, San Diego; and Wellesley College. In 1987 she became the first tenured African American woman professor in the field of philosophy.

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Kobena Mercer, "Decentering and Recentering: Adrian Piper's Spheres of Influence," in Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, ed. Maurice Berger (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1999), 56.

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Piper, quoted in Laura Cottingham, "The 'Autobiog­raphy' of Adrian Piper," in Adrian Piper, 61.

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"Adrian Piper." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​artists/​adrian-piper/​.