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Adrian Piper
Piper in 2005
Born (1948-09-20) September 20, 1948 (age 75)
New York City, US
Known for Founding the Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA)

Adrian Margaret Smith Piper (born September 20, 1948) is an American conceptual artist and Kantian philosopher. Her work addresses how and why those involved in more than one discipline may experience professional ostracism, otherness, racial passing, and racism by using various traditional and non-traditional media to provoke self-analysis. She uses reflection on her own career as an example.

Piper has been awarded various fellowships and medals and has been described as having "profoundly influenced the language and form of Conceptual art". In 2002, she founded the Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) in Berlin, Germany, the focus of a foundation that was established in 2009.

Life and education

Piper was born on September 20, 1948, in New York City. She was raised in Manhattan in an upper-middle-class Black family and attended a private school with mostly wealthy, White students. She studied art at the School of Visual Arts and was graduated with an associate's degree in 1969. Piper then studied philosophy at the City College of New York and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's in 1974. Piper received a master's in philosophy from Harvard University in 1977 and her doctorate in 1981, supervised by John Rawls. She also studied at the University of Heidelberg. During her philosophical studies, Piper focused on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; this philosophical inspiration pervades her artworks, most specifically Food for the Spirit (1971).

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Piper was influenced by Sol LeWitt and Yvonne Rainer. She worked at the Seth Siegelaub Gallery, known for its conceptual art exhibitions, in 1969. In 1970, she exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Information, and began to study philosophy in college. Piper has said that she was kicked out of the art world during this time for her race and sex. Her work started to address ostracism, otherness, and attitudes around racism. In an interview with Maurice Berger, published under the title Critique of Pure Racism, Piper asserted that while she finds analysis of racism praiseworthy, she wants her artwork to help people confront their racist views.

Piper was awarded visual arts fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and 1982, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. Piper taught at Wellesley College, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and University of California, San Diego. In 1987, she became the first female African-American philosophy professor to receive academic tenure in the United States. While she was on unpaid leave in Berlin during 2008, Wellesley College terminated her tenured full professorship because of her refusal to return to the United States while listed as a "Suspicious Traveler" on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration Watch List.

Piper is divorced and has no children. She currently lives and works in Berlin, where she runs the Adrian Piper Research Archive. In 2015, she was awarded the Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition of the Venice Biennale.

In 2017, Piper received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University.


In 1981 Piper published an essay entitled "Ideology, Confrontation and Political Self-Awareness", in which she discusses concepts she explores through her art. In her essay, she contemplates notions of human self-examination and belief structures that serve to "individuate oneself from another." These beliefs begin with our early experiences in the world and go unquestioned until they are attacked by new experiences that break the conformity, introducing doubt—the key to self-examination and belief-revision. Piper argues that the beliefs we tend to hold onto the longest, and often avoid exposing to examination, are those that allow us to maintain an understanding that makes sense to us about who we are and how we exist within the world at large. She points out that these "ideologies" often are responsible for "stupid, insensitive, self-serving [behavior], usually at the expense of other individuals or groups." Piper concludes the essay by telling readers that if considering the points she brings up makes them self-conscious about their political beliefs in the slightest degree, or causes them to have even "the slightest glimmerings of doubt about the veracity of [their] opinions, then [she] will consider [the] piece a roaring success."

Piper's work is largely based on her background in philosophy, including eastern philosophy. Piper started studying and practicing yoga in 1965. Through her education, she gained interest into the eastern yogic traditions of Hindu philosophy. Many of her works either allude to or directly incorporate eastern philosophy in them, for example, Mythic Being: Doing Yoga (1975), The Color Wheel Series (2000), and Mokshamudra Progression (2012). On her website, Piper brings attention to the rise of yoga in the United States, and with it, the decline of its true spiritual meanings. She states, "But my deeper hope is that professional philosophers who visit these pages will eventually take it upon themselves to begin the long, slow process of reintegrating the Eastern philosophical tradition with the Western one, of reminding us what we have lost – by restoring the application of theory to practice as a central measure of philosophical worth; by restoring, too, the more generous conception of the self extending beyond the ego that Western philosophy has forgotten; by restoring to a central place in our thinking the insights of Yoga into the structure of the ego and its relation to change, desire, and acquisitions; and thereby restoring the methods, practices and wisdom of Yoga to its rightful place among the many philosophical traditions that express our capacities for intellectual analysis and spiritual growth."


In June 1968 Piper's work was published in 0 to 9 magazine, an avant-garde publication that experimented with language and meaning-making. The first mention of Piper as an artist in the press was in the Village Voice on March 27, 1969, when she was only 19 years old. It was in response to what also is considered her first solo exhibition, her mail art project entitled, Three Untitled Projects. The people and institutions to whom she sent her 8+12-by-11-inch (220 mm × 280 mm) stapled booklets that comprised the piece were listed on the last page as the "Exhibit Locations". With this project, Piper succeeded in distributing her work on her own terms to an audience of more than 150 artists, curators, and dealers of her choosing.

Street performances (1970s)

In the 1970s, she began a series of street performances under the collective title, Catalysis, which included actions such as painting her clothes with white paint, wearing a sign that read "Wet Paint", and going to Macy's department store to shop for gloves and sunglasses. The word "catalysis" describes a chemical reaction caused by a catalytic agent that remains unchanged, and Piper viewed her audience's reaction as the unaffected agent.

Piper spent the summer of 1971 in her loft in New York City. During this time, she was reading Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). She would read this book while doing various activities. Such activities consisted of yoga, fasting and writing. However, her experience reading this led to her feeling that she was losing connection to her physical self and was disappearing. She created the work Food for the Spirit to counteract this feeling. To perform the work, she would photograph herself periodically in front of a mirror and would chant parts of the book that led her to this feeling. The works consist of 14 gelatin silver prints as part of a binder.

Funk Lessons (1980s)

Between 1982 and 1984, Piper staged a series of events advertised as Funk Lessons, which invited participants to learn about the dance styles, culture, and history of funk music. Piper located the roots of funk in African tribal music and saw it as integral to the growing presence of black cultural figures in America and the ongoing struggle for equal rights. By exposing diverse audiences to the music of African American counterculture, Piper sought to create a dialogue about the cultural value of dance music and the politics of race and identity.

Each "lesson" was advertised on postcards that specifically avoided labeling the event as a work of participatory art. Piper began the lessons by playing samples of music and instructing participants in specific dance moves, while gradually introducing anecdotes of black history and culture into her presentation. Piper acted as a facilitator to discussions that, at times, grew heated as participants strayed from the academic format to engage in active discussion. By engaging audiences in active participation, Piper saw herself as creating an early work of relational aesthetics or what might be described as social practice. As documented in a video by Sam Samore, the experience transcended academic didacticism in favor of social exchange; Piper's mantra for the work was, "Get down and party together."


In 1981, Piper published the essay, "Ideology, Confrontation, and Political Self Awareness", in High Performance Magazine. In it, she details three pervasive logical fallacies that she felt contributed to constructing one's ideology: the False Identity Mechanism, Illusion of Perfectibility, and One Way Communication Mechanism. She argued that these fallacies lead to the Illusion of Omniscience, which she defined as "[b]eing so convinced of the infallibility of your own beliefs about everyone else that you forget you are perceiving and experiencing as other people from a perspective that is in its own ways just as subjective and limited as theirs."

In 2008, she published her two-volume essay, "Rationality and the Structure of the Self". Volume I involves a summary of a wealth of Western philosophy, while Volume II focuses on her own interpretation of these philosophers. In Volume II, Piper argues that, without moral alienation, we would be unable to forge relationships with others, or act interpersonally in the service of selfless or disinterested moral principles.

Gallery work

Much of Piper's work deals with issues of racial passing, racism, and gender in the United States. For example, in her 1986 performance piece, "My Calling (Card) #1", she distributed a card to anyone who made a racist comment in her presence, making them aware of her identity as an African American woman, and of how their comment made her feel uncomfortable. These cards were distributed by Piper at dinners and cocktail parties as a way for her to subtly confront racism.

Racial passing is addressed in another of Piper's performance pieces, "Cornered" (1988), where in a video recording she declares to an audience, "I'm black". Piper then explains how that fact may surprise the viewer because Piper, who has a fairer complexion, could pass for White, but chooses to identify as black.

In The Probable Trust Registry, the piece for which Piper received top honors at the Venice Biennale in 2015, Piper asked visitors to sign contracts with themselves adhering to one of a trio of posted statements, for example, "I will always do what I say I am going to do". In a statement accompanying the award, the jury said: "Piper has reformed conceptual practice to include personal subjectivity—of herself, her audience, and the public in general." They also noted that the piece asks its audience "to engage in a lifelong performance of personal responsibility." In February 2017, the work was central to her first solo exhibition in a German museum at Nationalgalerie at Hamburger Bahnhof.

A 50-year retrospective of Piper's work, displayed on the top floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from March 31, 2018, to July 22, 2018, is the first time the New York museum devoted that entire level to a living artist.


The Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation

The Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation is based in Berlin, Germany. It focuses on documenting the art, philosophy, and yoga of Piper's life. The goal of the foundation is to protect, preserve, and offer public access to the foundation for the benefit of those students, scholars, curators, collectors, writers, and members of the general public who demonstrate interest in the work of Piper. A fellowship award has been given in the years 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017, with the amount of the award varying. The foundation is raising funds with the goals of, (1) complete the renovation of its permanent home in Berlin-Mitte so as to increase its accessibility to the general public; (2) increase the grant amount of the annual Multi-disciplinary Fellowship to a full-year research sabbatical for the grantee; and (3) lay the foundations for the a new Philosophy Dissertation Fellowship for the foundation. The goal of the campaign is to raise €4,000,000.

The Berlin Journal of Philosophy

Established in 2011, The Berlin Journal of Philosophy is an open-access, peer-reviewed, international journal that seeks to innovate through adhering strictly to simultaneous policies of blind submission, double-blind review, and anti-plagiarism. The Berlin Journal of Philosophy is administered and published by the APRA Foundation Berlin.


Selected exhibitions

Year Exhibition
2019 Adrian Piper: Concepts and Institutions, 1965-2016, The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; JR - Adrian Piper - Ray Johnson, Salon Berlin - Museum Frieder Burda, Berlin; Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY
2018 Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkBeginning with the Seventies: GLUT, The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver BC
2018 Adrian Piper: The Mythic Being, MAMCO
2017 The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, Hamburger Bahnhof: Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany
1999 Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, 1965–2000, Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, UMBC (traveling retrospective)
1996 NowHere, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark
1994 The Hypothesis Series 1968–70, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, New York,
1992 Ur-Madonna, Expo '92, Monasterio de Santa Clara, Moguer (Huelva), Spain; Decide Who You Are, Grey Art Gallery, John Weber Gallery, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, New York
1991 What It's Like, What It Is, #2, Hirshhorn Museum, Directions Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Adrian Piper: European Retrospective, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England (traveling show); Space, Time, and Reference 1967–1970, John Weber Gallery, New York, New York
1990 Pretend, John Weber Gallery, New York, New York; Out of the Corner, Whitney Museum of American Art, Film and Video Gallery, New York, New York
1989 Cornered, John Weber Gallery, New York, New York
1987 Adrian Piper: Reflections, 1967–1987, The Alternative Museum, New York, New York (traveling show)
1980 Adrian Piper at Matrix 56, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; Adrian Piper, Real Artways, Hartford, Connecticut
1976 Adrian Piper, Gallery One, Montclair State College, Montclair, New Jersey
1969 Three Untitled Projects, postal art exhibition, New York, New York

See also

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