Review/Art; Adrian Piper’s Head-On Confrontation of Racism
BY MICHAEL BRENSON
Published: October 26, 1990
If the fall season in New York can be said to belong to one artist, that artist is Adrian Piper. For some months now, her images and words about race and racism seem to have been everywhere: in galleries, in museums and in all kinds of publications. Her current exhibition of work on paper at Exit Art in SoHo is the second she has had in New York this fall (the first was at the John Weber Gallery). Her ambitious new video installation, “Out of the Corner,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is based on “Cornered,” a video that was shown at John Weber in March 1989 and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art last summer.
Ms. Piper is part black and part white. She was born in 1948 in New York City, where she was brought up and entered the art scene in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Like some of the most influential Conceptual and Minimal art of that time, her work is absolute, highly logical, structured around ideas whose permutations she exhausts. And she is determined to bring social realities into the art gallery, thereby preventing the gallery from being exclusively a refuge from the world outside it.
Ms. Piper is very much her own person. She is a professor of philosophy at Wellesley College. (She discusses the relationship between her art and philosophy in an interview with the art critic Maurice Berger in the October issue of Afterimage.) She is a political artist who — apart from an affinity for an obnoxious word like “Euroethnic” — is remarkably free of jargon, and who is determined to fight against abstractions of all kinds. She is a political artist whose approach and appeal are highly personal: she fights racism with her art by trying to touch individual lives.
Ms. Piper’s work sets out to expose and challenge assumptions about race that make it difficult for some people to see those with a different skin color in a fully human manner. She is fearless in her willingness to expose the kinds of fears, cliches and assumptions that she believes inform many white people’s perception of blacks without being brought to the surface. Her willingness to confront embarrassing feelings means that she will probably always run the risk of obviousness and overstatement.
“Close to Home,” from 1987, at Exit Art, includes a series of questionnaires. One question is “Do you have a black colleague at your place of employment?” Another is “Have you ever had a sexual relationship with a black person?” Each questionnaire includes a white panel asking in black letters: “Do you feel uncomfortable at the thought of displaying such questions on your living room wall?”
In the “Vanilla Nightmare” series that she began in 1986, Ms. Piper makes charcoal drawings over New York Times articles about race relations and advertisements for the good life. Her images are phantoms, often larger than the white people in the advertisements, indeed often larger than life, with no individuality. They are little more than forces of lubriciousness, potency, envelopment and night.
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