Stephen E. Ostrow Distinguished Visitors
MARCH 21, 1999
Adrian Piper, conceptual and performance artist and professor of philosophy at Wellesley College, gave a lecture on her artwork Monday, March 1, in Reed's Vollum lecture hall as the first Stephen Ostrow Distinguished Visitor in the Visual Arts for the spring of 1999. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Piper's lecture, "Talking Pictures," surveys and analyzes her works from the last few decades, which are notable for their extended and various uses of language. Her work, in a variety of media, has focused on racism, racial stereotyping, and xenophobia for nearly three decades. One of the first artists to inject identity politics into 1960s conceptualism, Piper has explored what it feels like to be the target of racial stereotypes.
Piper has been the recipient of the Skowhegan Medal for Sculptural Installation and numerous fellowships, including the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts.
Piper's art work, which began in the 1970 as solo performances, includes video installation, drawings, and photographs. Her work has been shown at museums and galleries throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum; the Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia; the Musée d'Art Moderne de Ville de Paris; the Fukyui Fine Arts Museum in Japan; and the John Weber Gallery in New York. In 1997 the Alternative Museum in New York held a 20-year retrospective, and there are plans for a traveling retrospective next year.
Piper received her B.A. in philosophy from the City College of New York and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She was trained in art at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She holds a tenured chair in philosophy at Wellesley. The recipient of NEH, Andrew Mellon, and Woodrow Wilson Research Fellowships, her principle publications are in metaethics, Kant, and the history of ethics. She is currently a fellow at the Getty Research Institute for Art History and the Humanities, where she is working on her three-volume work on Kant, Rationality and the Structure of the Self.
Piper's collection of writings on art and aesthetic theory, Out of Order, Out of Sight, were published in two large volumes by MIT Press in 1996. Her autobiographical essay, "Passing For White, Passing For Black," published in Transition in 1992, is cited by literary critics, philosophers, and legal scholars as an important work on racial passing.
Angry and hopeful in turns, Piper's art and writing lends itself to the agendas of both color-blind idealism and racial militancy, often at the same time. Piper is skeptical that black and whites will ever share the same privileges. She views racism as a "visual" and "cognitive" pathology that is deeply buried in the structure of self. She began to challenge white racist ideas explicitly in her early performance pieces in the 1970s.
While a student at Harvard she staged her Mythic Being performance. For this work she dressed as a man and wandered Cambridge, staring at women, hanging out on street corners. "People reacted to me as though I were a black male, and that was incredibly unpleasant." Cornered, an installation done in 1988, further explored the dialogue of racism. This video piece explores the difficulties of being a black person who is mistaken for white. "Because some one who is visibly black sounds the alarm to white people to be on their best behavior, they never find out what it's like when white people do not have that warning signal, do not have the cue of a black skin to tell them there are certain things they better not say."
In the later 1980s the New York art world rediscovered Adrian Piper. Multimedia work about identity began to flood the galleries, and much of it was indebted to Piper. Her early experiment with masquerade can be seen in Cindy Sherman's self-portraiture, and her bold use of language prefigures Barbara Kruger. Simultaneously the art world gave rise to a group of young black artists also dealing with race and identity, such as Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems.