Adrian Piper
19.03 - 09.06.2024
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curated by Diego Sileo


PAC Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea presents the first European retrospective in over twenty years dedicated to Adrian Piper (1948, New York), winner of the Golden Lion award as best artist at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The exhibition traces over sixty years of career, with important international loans from the most prestigious museums, including MoMA and Guggenheim, New York; MoMA, San Francisco; MCA, Chicago; MOCA, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London.
Established as a conceptual and minimalist artist as well as a performer on the New York art scene of the late 1960s, Piper raises often uncomfortable questions about politics, racial and gender identity, and asks people to confront truths about themselves and the society in which they live. In particular, the works on display highlight the analysis of the “visual pathology” of racism: through installations, videos, photographs, paintings and drawings the artist carries out research on the image of African Americans brought about by society and many widespread stereotypes.
The concept of permanent struggle against racism, xenophobia, social injustice and hatred is the core of her philosophical, artistic and activist practice.
As a woman artist and philosopher, Piper’s work also often questions her experiences of sexism and misogyny. In this sense, her research has inspired entire generations of contemporary artists.


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Adrian Piper, Race Traitor, 2018
Photo: Fotofix
Rennie Collection, Vancouver
© Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin

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PAC Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea presents the first European retrospective in over twenty years dedicated to Adrian Piper (1948, New York), winner of the Golden Lion award as best artist at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The exhibition traces over sixty years of career, with important international loans from the most prestigious museums, including MoMA and Guggenheim, New York; MoMA, San Francisco; MCA, Chicago; MOCA, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London. Established as a conceptual and minimalist artist as well as a performer on the New York art scene of the late 1960s, Piper raises often uncomfortable questions about politics, racial and gender identity, and asks people to confront truths about themselves and the society in which they live. The works on display highlight the analysis of the “visual pathology” of racism: through installations, videos, photographs, paintings and drawings the artist carries out research on the image of African Americans brought about by society and many widespread stereotypes. The concept of permanent struggle against racism, xenophobia, social injustice and hatred is the core of her philosophical, artistic and activist practice. As a woman artist and philosopher, Piper’s work also often questions her experiences of sexism and misogyny. In this sense, her research has inspired entire generations of contemporary artists.


Adrian Piper’s first exhibited works date back to the 1960s. These are drawings and figurative pictorial works created at a very young age, even before arriving at the School of Visual Arts – SVA in New York. Despite the use of the term LSD in some titles, these psychedelic works were not produced under the influence of narcotic substances (an experience that the artist tried a limited number of times), but rather they are works that testify to the attempt to look beyond the surface of things. This is a practice that Piper pursued right from the start, also through frequenting Vedic philosophical and spiritual readings, meditation and yoga. The deep concentration on the subject leads to the surfaces vibrating until they fragment, as happens for example in LSD Self-Portrait from the Inside Out. The connection with the counterculture of the 1960s, which the artist frequented in that period, is evident in the triptych dedicated to Alice in Wonderland. This is an explicit reference to the atmosphere of the time, in which Lewis Carroll’s literary work was particularly appreciated.

In those years, figuration remained a recognizable element in the artist’s work, which initiated the first attempts to escape from the two-dimensionality of the painting, as in Barbara Epstein with Doll from 1966, where the doll crosses over into the third dimension. The following year saw the series of Barbie Doll Drawings: 35 drawings made in pencil and ink, playing on the composition of recurring elements such as body parts.

Drawings about Paper and Writings about Words from 1967 marks the beginning of a reflection based on the element of the grid, on variation, on divisibility and on permutation. It is a series composed of around forty works on paper, created through collage and drawing, in which, using a few geometric elements, the artist reflects
on the physical concreteness of the page and its infinite possibilities of subdivision and extension. Through works such as Recessed Square (1967) and Double Recessed (1967), both volumetric structures based on geometric shapes, her work then emerges from the two-dimensionality of the sheet. The context in which these works were born is that of the development of conceptual art and Adrian Piper’s familiarity with the work and thought of Sol LeWitt, who wrote the Paragraphs on Conceptual Art in 1967.

As we will see in the project room, the performance soon becomes an important means in Piper’s artistic research and is preceded by private actions through which the artist records her own existence. In Concrete Infinity Documentation Piece, from 1970, in fact, for more than a month she transcribes what happens to her during the day, also attaching a photograph of herself for each day. This work was then followed by Food for the Spirit from 1971, a series of photographic self-portraits in front of the mirror, containing some details of the surrounding environment. As one progresses, the photographs become darker, the environment around the figure is less and less recognizable. What remains at last is an increasingly evanescent image of the artist.

Between ROOM 1 and ROOM 2

The reflection on time and space, now in relation to the artist’s existence within these two dimensions, goes on in the Hypothesis series, begun in 1968 and continued until 1970. In these works, Piper documents some moments of her being in the world through photographic shots, which she then relocates within a linear scheme of space-time coordinates. For example, in Hypothesis Situation #10* the artist, while watching TV, takes five photographs of a medicine advertisement for one minute and at irregular time intervals, and then rearranges them according to the temporal and spatial axes of the diagram she has conceived.


*Loans of works in cooperation with Generali Foundation


With the installation Art for the Art World Surface Pattern, from 1976, Adrian Piper’s political awareness made its definitive entry into the artist’s production. Inside a white cube with a minimalist appearance is a space entirely covered with images taken from newspapers reporting various types of atrocities that have occurred in the world. On these photos the artist provocatively imprints the words “Not a Performance”, while an audio transmits her voice mimicking
a typical art world viewer’s indifference towards these events.


Between the 1970s and 1980s, Adrian Piper focused her attention on racial and gender discrimination, reflecting in ever greater depth on the historical and cultural mechanisms leading to the creation of socially predefined identities. In this room the central theme of the exhibition is already presented through two works from the late 1980s, a moment in which the artist’s awareness of the issue of racial determination had now reached maturity. In Close to Home she faces the viewer with a series of questions, placed under images of people of color, on possible relationships of various kinds (work, emotional, etc.) with African-American people. This is a work that embarrasses the art public, a feeling reinforced by the sentence placed further down, which reads: “Do you feel uncomfortable at the thought of displaying these types of questions on the wall of your living room?”. Piper then ironically apologizes in the audio for prying.

Cornered is from 1989; a work that encourages us to dig beyond our beliefs regarding our own identity classification. In the monologue contained in this work,
it is Piper herself, on the monitor of a TV placed between two birth certificates, who talks about the complex mechanisms linked to racial determination and the history of miscegenation. In front of the video there is an audience of chairs neatly aligned in gunboat formation to form a triangle which recalls some works from the first period.

Between ROOM 2 and ROOM 3

To the initial period, mainly linked to conceptual research, belong a series of works from 1968 such as Sixteen Permutations of a Planar Analysis of a Square, in which the artist once again investigates the relationship between the concreteness of a form and the infinite possibility of permutation. In Concrete Infinity 6 inch Square she transcribes all the possible ways in which the square can be seen and read, while Utah-Manhattan Transfer is the superimposition of two maps, that of Manhattan and that of a site in Utah around a military base where chemical weapons tests were conducted. Here and Now also dates back to 1968: sixty-four sheets in which the artist starts from the grid, to then describe in each sheet the exact position occupied by the box within which the description itself is found.


The third room houses one of the two most recent works on display in the exhibition: the environmental installation Das Ding-an-sich bin ich from 2018, whose title refers to the Kantian noumenon, a reality that lies beyond what appears to our senses. This work condenses the main elements that have characterized Piper’s research from the 1960s to the present day. First of all, the direct reference to philosophy is evident and, from a linguistic point of view, we find the geometric shapes and the structure of the floor grid, which as already seen marked the first conceptual investigations. On it are arranged 8 square-based parallelepipeds with mirrored walls, as if to involve visitors and make them part of the work once again. From these volumes comes the audio of voices speaking in different languages: Farsi, Arabic, Icelandic, Hebrew, Turkish, Gaelic, Hindi or Somali. In works like this it is more evident than ever how Adrian Piper has been able to bring the political discourse on society and ultimately on the human being into conceptual reflection and minimalist aesthetics.

Between ROOM 3 and ROOM 4

The long reflection on herself, which started from the idea of being a presence in the world and in relation to it, also passed for Piper through the analysis of the way in which her existence is perceived within society. Between 1978 and 1980 she created the series of Political Self-Portraits, in which images portraying herself are superimposed on long texts in which she herself traces the development of her own political beliefs as a consequence of her own personal experience. In the first portrait she deals with the theme of gender, in the second with that of race and in the third with that of class membership.
In particular, in Political Self-Portrait #1 (Sex) the artist analyzes the power relations that are also established between women, despite the results obtained at that time thanks to second-wave feminism. Her open-access video, Second Wave Feminism: Unfinished Business at video.shtml updates this analysis for the 21st century.


In 1991 the US press covered the case of Anita Hill, a young African- American lawyer who testified that she had been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, an African American nominated to the US Supreme Court. The media debate, which also had racist implications, ended up misrepresenting the victim as a seductress. This case was among the events that triggered the start of the third wave of international feminism. The photograph of Hill at the age of 8, superimposed on a text in which Piper reports censorious comments, is the constant element in the Decide Who You Are series, from 1992. It is a composition of panels, at the basis of which we still find the structure of the grid. On its right there is always Hill, while on the left there is an enlarged drawing of the three monkeys (made by the artist) and a variable text regarding racism, sexism etc. From time to time, images taken from newspapers whose content refers to the text on the left are arranged between these two side panels.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the nineties, Adrian Piper faced the illness of her mother who had become progressively disabled due to emphysema. A more intimate work, I Am Some Body, The Body of My Friends (1992-1995), was born during the periods in which she had to be away from her. In this artwork, she takes photographs together with friends and people who make her feel well.

In 1995, after the death of her mother, the MOCA in Los Angeles organized the exhibition 1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art. On that occasion the artist, having learned that Philip Morris would be among the sponsors of the exhibition, withdrew her work and offered a new one to replace it: Ashes to Ashes, which was rejected and is dedicated to the memory of her mother, Olive Xavier Smith Piper. Here Piper highlights the lethal damage that cigarette smoking caused in the lives of her parents.

Between ROOM 4 and ROOM 5

Piper’s self-portraits demonstrate well how important the awareness of being an artist, a woman and a person of color was. Here visual traits are accentuated from time to time, which in common sense should be indicative for the definition of one pre-established identity rather than another. On the wall is the Race Traitor poster series from 2018, in which, using the same visual language as in the Political Self-Portraits, Piper uses her own portrait by superimposing it on some sentences, with the aim of satirizing the belief that a person’s appearance can define their identity.


In 1991, invited by Robert Storr to participate in the Dislocations exhibition at MoMA, Adrian Piper installed What It’s Like, What It Is #3 (fourth version of the 1990 work, installed here in the gallery on the first floor). This work reproduces a minimalist environment, reminiscent of the aseptic museum architecture in which objects are generally displayed for public view. In such an environment, recalling the arenas of the Roman Empire with steps on which people can sit, Piper places the video of an African American man offered to the gaze of the public in the middle of the room, boxed in a parallelepiped at the center of the scene while denying a series of stereotypes about his identity.


In the series Ur-Mutter (1989), images and texts that recall American consumerism are linked with the image of the African mother-child couple in conditions of poverty, which, as the artist recalls with the sentence “We made you”, is at the origins of human society in general (the first Homo sapiens were in fact born on the African continent), and American society in particular. In Ur-Mutter #8 the same image with the text Fight or die is combined with an advertisement created by Jeff Koons for his exhibition and published in various art magazines (including Artforum), in which he himself is in front of a class of students made up entirely of European-American or Asian children.

In the Pretend series from 1990, Piper nails the viewer with the responsibility of continuing to ignore, for reasons of convenience, well-known situations. Thus in Pretend #1 we see the faces of eight African-American men, including Martin Luther King Jr. and in Pretend #3 a series of images taken from the press and showing the treatment of brutality and surveillance reserved for African Americans. Images are accompanied by the phrase “Pretend not to know what you know”.

Also in Why Guess?, from 1989, the artist uses images taken from newspapers, playing on the habit of making preconceived assumptions. Each image is in fact presented twice: the first alone and the second accompanied by the text “Why guess? …”

Black Box / White Box * from 1992 is one of the works from the nineties in which the artist expands the dimensional scale, forcefully reaffirming the contents of her research. This installation is composed of two cubic enclosures, black and white, and creates two environments within which the reflection starts from the case of Rodney King, an African American taxi driver known in the news of the time for having been the victim of a violent beating by the police of Los Angeles.


* Loans of works in cooperation with Generali Foundation


It is with the 1975 performance Some Reflected Surfaces that the importance of dance within the artistic research of Adrian Piper is affirmed, even within the context of the Harvard Philosophy Department graduate student lounge. On this occasion, among other things, she talked about when she worked as a disco dancer in New York in the 1960s to support herself. Here a transgender version of the artist’s male alter ego makes her appearance (“The Mythic Being”, born in 1973).

Starting in 1973, Adrian Piper, wearing a mustache, wig and sunglasses, gave life to her own male alter ego: The Mythic Being. The goal is to explore the possible experience of someone with the same genetic history, that of acknowledged African ancestry, but with a different gender and external appearance from herself. Thus, through photographs, texts and performances, she began to unite this character with episodes of her own personal history. “The Mythic Being” made his official public appearance in The Village Voice, on the advertisements page. For seventeen editions, a photo of the Being with a thought bubble was published, where the artist transcribed from time to time texts taken from her adolescent diary. These sentences, different every month, were then recited by heart by the alter ego who repeated them aloud like his mantra, even in public situations.

Following this first appearance, “The Mythic Being” became a recurring presence in Adrian Piper’s work until 1976. In the series of ten photographs entitled I / You (Her) we see the artist’s image, posed with her grammar school classmate Elizabeth Sackler, gradually transform itself into that of her alter ego, while in the comics we read a monologue addressing an unnamed traitor. Here “The Mythic Being” becomes an autonomous and independent entity compared to Piper. We later see him dancing inside an apartment and even, in 1975, purporting to be everything we hate and fear.

Between 1986 and 1989 Adrian Piper created the Vanilla Nightmares series. In these works, the artist intervenes by drawing with pencil and charcoal on some pages extracted from the New York Times. These are figurative representations that interact with articles and advertisements, revealing the latent fantasies and fears of American society towards African Americans. In Vanilla Nightmares #3, for example, the newspaper page contains an article on the situation in South Africa followed, immediately below, by a Street Safari style clothing advertisement. In this case, Piper intervenes by adding in the main photograph the drawing of a dark-skinned man of African descent with pronounced facial features, who grabs the model from behind. Again, for example, Vanilla Nightmares #19, on a double page, shows on one side an advertisement for underwear with African-American models and on the other the elegant line drawing of a European-American model. Here Piper intervenes with a rather shocking drawing that refers to the myth, rooted in the history of American slavery, of the sexual accessibility and bestiality of African American women. The contrast between the drawing of the brutal scene represented by the artist and the illustration in the newspaper also suggests a reflection on the relationships between European-American and African-American women and on the limits of feminist universalism.


What It’s Like, What It Is #1 from 1990 is the first version of the work already encountered on the ground floor. In this case, however, within a totally black environment the visitor seems to become the object of others’ observation. Through fictitious windows, it is the minority that observes from outside what is found inside the exhibition space – namely the viewers, while they hear the sobbing voice of a young African-American woman recounting her experience of racial discrimination in the workplace.

Everything is a series that began in 2003 (and is still ongoing) during the period in which life in the United States began to be increasingly difficult for Adrian Piper. The artist expresses the felt need to metabolize the loss of her illusions regarding the society in which she lived. In the first works of the series, exhibited here, Piper intervenes on images of a different nature by erasing a part of them and overwriting “Everything will be taken away” on the void, an evocative gesture recalling the concept of transience.

Safe 1-4 is another environmental installation from the same year. Here visitors find themselves surrounded by images that show the presence of people of color
in society, while an audio combines comments expressing disappointment with a work like this, capable of making those who experience it highly uncomfortable, with an aria from a Bach cantata.

The third room of the gallery displays the digital animations that are part of The Pac-Man Trilogy (2005–2008), videos speaking of the dynamics of social division, while their minimalist aesthetics recalls the first video games.

The exhibition ends with Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (1978), an environmental installation dating back to the period in which Piper forcefully brought the issue of racism to the attention of the art public. In a white room, in the center of a wall is a photograph that portrays a group of dark-skinned South Africans going down the subway stairs. The lighting and the glass in front of the image make the visitors reflect on it, while the audio invites them to look carefully at the photo and pay attention to the reactions and questions that this work raises.


The idea of existing as an active object in time and space manifests itself already in the artist’s first public performance, when she was engaged in a more strictly conceptual research. An unusual work for this era, although prefiguring how important political awareness would later become in Piper’s career, is Five Unrelated Time Pieces (Meat into Meat) from 1969, which starts from a private performance lasting three days in the artist’s life. This work tells the contradictions of a domestic relationship in which she herself – a woman who turns to vegetarianism and begins to be interested in feminism – prepares the meal, made of animal meat, for David Rosner, at the time her partner and a convinced, politically engaged Marxist.

Untitled Performance at Max’s Kansas City* was created in 1970 inside the eponymous bar on the occasion of “The Saturday Afternoon Show”. As can be seen in the photos documenting the event, Piper, isolating herself from the surrounding environment by dulling her senses thanks to gloves, blinders, nose caps, earplugs, etc., moved between the tables and the customers of the bar, followed by the woman photographer.


*Loans of works in cooperation with Generali Foundation

Following this experience, in an attempt to truly measure herself with an unaware public not dedicated to art, in the same year Adrian Piper began to act in urban space. This is how Catalysis was born, in which she herself becomes the catalyst for the reactions of others. In Catalysis III and Catalysis IV * the artist wanders through the streets of the city, amid the astonished looks of passers-by, respectively wearing clothes covered in white paint with a sign that reads “Wet Paint” and her mouth filled with a towel dangling from her lips unable to close.


*Loans of works in cooperation with Generali Foundation

It’s Just Art from 1980 is a video that revolves around the documentation of a performance in which Piper, with loose hair, thin mustache and huge sunglasses (transgender version of the artist’s male alter ego The Mythic Being, whose story is displayed in the balcony), stares in front of herself while her thoughts are explained in comic speech bubbles. Press photographs depicting Cambodian refugees, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the American invasion are mounted on these images. The artist’s voice, meanwhile, reads an article on the Cambodian genocide while enthralling dance music, Do You Love What You Feel by Rufus & Chaka Khan, acts as a soundtrack to all this audiovisual information, triggering in the observer an involuntary rhythmic entrainment and a short circuit of contradictory sensations.

One of Adrian Piper’s most iconic works is Funk Lessons, a collaborative performance staged seven times from 1983 to 1985 (shown here thanks to Sam Samore’s film). The artist gave the participants both some indications of the movements and information on the origins of funk music, highlighting how the contribution of African-American dance and music has been significant in the more general American cultural panorama and finally making an expressive tool that was relegated to African- American culture available to everyone (even to European Americans).

Dance has remained an important medium for Adrian Piper even in more recent times. The discomfort with American society led Piper to leave the country permanently in 2005 to move to Berlin. In 2007, at Alexanderplatz, the artist created an endurance-based performance entitled Adrian Moves to Berlin, during which she returned to public space and dance. In fact, for an hour Piper improvised a dance to the tune of Berlin house music from the 2000s under the gaze of passers-by. It expresses a sort of rediscovered lightness in a city where a population previously divided into two by history has been able to find forms of coexistence, also thanks to the spaces dedicated to dancing.

The My Calling (Card) actions from 1986 are well known. Here Piper had messages printed on cardboard, on the model of business cards, regarding racial affilation, in one case, and female gender, in the others. These texts, written in the first person, were delivered by the artist, as a polite warning, to people who assumed, even unconsciously, discriminatory attitudes towards her.


Born in New York in 1948, ADRIAN PIPER is an artist and philosopher. She has lived and worked in Berlin since 2005.

After an embryonic pictorial-psychedelic phase, Piper approached conceptual art and began working in this direction in 1967, reflecting on the concepts of space and time through the use of a minimalist aesthetics. In these same years, Piper also encountered the practice of yoga and meditation, which still accompany her today. Starting from the 1970s and 1980s, the artist also began to use performance and, having increased her awareness of being a woman and belonging to a minority, she brought contents of social and political commitment within the conceptual language, addressing issues such as xenophobia, racial and gender discrimination.

Since the late 1960s, Adrian Piper has also dedicated herself to the study of philosophy, becoming, in 1987 at Georgetown University, the first American woman of acknowledged African descent to achieve tenure in the field of academic philosophy. In 2011 the American Philosophical Association awarded her the title of Professor Emeritus.

The 1980s to 2000s are marked by a progressive alienation from American society and the academic environment in particular, which is why in 2005 Adrian Piper fled the United States and moved to Berlin. She explains the reasons for this decision in her book Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir (2018).

Furthermore, in 2012 the artist retired from being black, questioning the predetermined African-American identity that had been assigned to her at a social level.