Exhibit of the week
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016
Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through July 22
Whatever your level of interest in conceptual art, Adrian Piper “shows us how to do it right,” said David Velasco in Artforum.com. For more than five decades, the Berlin-based, New York City–born artist has been the most generous of innovators, creating work that “kicks open your mind” without picking fruitless fights. And if you visit New York’s MoMA this spring, you will quickly learn why the museum has given her current retrospective an entire floor—an unprecedented amount of square footage for a living artist, said Victoria Stapley-Brown in TheArtNewspaper.com. “It takes that much space to cover the breadth of Piper’s work.” After a brief period of producing psychedelic drawings and paintings as a 1960s art-school student, the biracial polymath embraced conceptual art’s potential to interrogate habits of perception, particularly regarding race and otherness. Her tools have included video, performance, installation, and viewer participation. At one point in the MoMA show, visitors have to hum for a security guard to move from one area to the next.
Despite such moments of prankishness, the exhibition “does much to rightly remind viewers of Piper’s legacy as a first-rate thinker,” said Antwaun Sargent in Artsy.net. Even before she earned a Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy in 1981, she was staging searching probes of identity in projects characterized by “pitch-perfect” humor. For the 1973–75 project she called Mythic Being, she donned a fake mustache and Afro wig, then roamed the streets of New York City spouting lines from her teenage diary to bewildered passersby. She was, as usual, seeking to spark reactions, and indeed, “many of Piper’s works can seem like psychological thought experiments.” In Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems, a 1980 walk-in installation, a viewer enters a dark space to stand eye to eye with illuminated photo portraits of four black men while listening on headphones to Piper reciting words that test the listener’s racial anxieties. Because of such moments, the exhibition “will certainly be a wildly different experience for white visitors versus visitors of color.”
But Piper clearly wants all viewers to think differently about their responsibilities to one another, said Larissa Pham in Vice.com. Probable Trust Registry, an installation that won Piper top honors at 2015’s Venice Biennale, looks like a trio of MoMA information booths, but if you stop at any of them you’ll be invited to sign a contract committing yourself to one of three principles, including “I will always mean what I say” and “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” It’s just one more way that Piper’s art insists that no matter how much work we have to do to disentangle ourselves from the pathologies of sexism and racism, “there are some tools: We can observe, and be honest, and listen.”