Piper is one of the artists I most revere, and it was a delight to find this book, which I'd wanted so badly but couldn't afford back when I caught a retrospective of her work at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art back in 2000, I believe, with my friend Reggie H. Who is Adrian Piper, you might be asking? One of the most important artists of the last 40 years. After studying painting, she began her art career in the late 1960s as a rigorous abstract conceptualist before pushing her work in a range of different, though linked, directions: performance, drawing and collage, installation, videos, photography, sound art, cross-genre works, and many other forms. Since the mid-1970s, much of her work has turned on the themes of gender, race, racism, xenophobia, and ethics, to varying degrees, and has also drawn heavily on Piper's autobiography and personal experiences, though central to all of her artwork is her exploration of concepts and ideas.
Around the time that she began her conceptual art practices, she undertook the formal study of philosophy, and in due time received an undergraduate and doctorate in this field, her thesis focusing on rationality. She has gone on two maintain multiples careers, as an artist and art critic, and as an academic philosopher, specializing in ethics and metaethics, with particular emphasis on Kant (one of my favorite philosophers). She also started studying yoga while still in her teens, and is an authority on that vast subject as well. The stress of juggling so many careers, as well as the hostility she has encountered, for numerous reasons, has taken an extraordinary toll, and in recent years Piper has been quite ill.
In describing Piper thus far, I have attempted to talk about her in a way she might (or might not) find acceptable, which is to say without emphasizing two key facts about her, one of which is by now quite evident: that she is a woman; the other is that she's an African American. In fact, Piper is one the key female figures in 1970s conceptual art, and the first African-American to gain recognition (and lose it, for a while) for her work in this area. She also was, I believe, the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, and later, the first tenured black woman at the institution where she still teaches, Wellesley College (that experience, however, has been nightmarish for Piper, as she makes clear on her Website). She is also one of the few African-American female academic philosophers, and one of the most distinguished. And yet, while Piper has repeatedly and enthusiastically articulated her recognition of these facts, she has also been very wary of labels, in part of their arbitrary and oppressive nature, particularly with regard to racial minorities. In fact, she could (and can) pass, and in fact has utilized this attribute (of physiognomy and external, social perception) as the ground (tropos) of a number of her artworks. (She also joined a Puerto Rican gang in her youth. I am wondering now how another artist or theorist might use some of Piper's practice to explore identity--particularly that of latinos, particularly afrolatinos, and other mixed peoples in the U.S.--more deeply.)
Her artistic practice has, in fact, grappled with the concepts of language and naming, identity and identification, marginality, and the socialization and social formation of perception, not simply from the female and black perspectives, but within the broader frameworks of ethics as they bear upon gender and feminism, and racism and racialization, which she has powerfully and relentlessly critiqued. (Subsequent artists, such as Glenn Ligon, for example, have riffed on some of her artworks, such as her "Drawing Exaggerating My Negroid Features.")
Her famous cards from the 1980s are indicative, to some degree, of her work: when she would overhear white people making racist remarks in her presence without realizing she was black (and she didn't follow one of several detailed strategies, such as reprimanding without "racing" herself; announcing she was black; announcing in advance that she was black; etc.), she would had them calling cards that read:
Dear Friend,Just imagine the response! I look forward to exploring this book, and urge all to explore Piper's artwork (and if you have philosophical training, her difficult but revelatory texts on ethics) if and when you can. Now, I have to find Volume 2, which features her art criticism.
I am black.
I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially in appropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe that there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.
I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.
Adrian Margaret Smith Piper.