The Restlessness of Thought: Adrian Piper at MoMA
Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 at the Museum of Modern Art
March 31 to July 22, 2018
11 West 53rd Street (between 5th and 6th avenues)
New York City, moma.org
The intuition in Adrian Piper’s work is evident everywhere. The curators had good reasons for titling this grand, inclusive retrospective of her art A Synthesis of Intuitions.
But which way do you want to take that word? In ordinary English it refers to immediate thought, what comes out of you without preparation as if because it has always been in there. Emerson speaking of the human instinct, as opposed to what schools provide, says, “We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.”
On the other hand Kant, whom this title phrase alludes to directly (and who was one of the subjects of Piper’s Ph.D. thesis at Harvard), pictures intuitions as the raw material of experience. The understanding brings formless sensory input together, using concepts to construct what we call experience in the act of synthesis. “Concepts without intuitions are empty,” Kant says, as if intuition filled our thinking, as if from outside. So the exhibition’s title is telling us that we’ll be looking at Adrian Piper’s efforts to organize what had come upon her from outer sources and shape it into her art – unless (because we can’t just forget the ordinary meaning of the word) it describes the synthesis that is this show at MoMA, organizing the various outpourings of Piper’s instincts.
It’s a good confusion to start with, between the wellspring of inner life and its independently grasped truths and what comes to that inwardness in the rush of experience, uncontrolled and often unwanted. As this survey ranges from minimalism and concept to political observation and comment, with news from the frontlines as well as from the artist’s backstory, it shows her persistently negotiating the interplay between what we know as inner and outer. Everyone thinks about what elements of their experience originate in their own minds as opposed to entering from elsewhere; but artists especially, and in another way especially philosophers. This exhibition, highly conscious of Piper as someone trained and practiced in both philosophy and art, keeps your mind on her meditations on mind.
The richly documented early work, when Piper was studying at the School for Visual Arts and then at City College, shows both Sol LeWitt’s influence and her own first inquiries into consciousness. At twenty, and in her early twenties, Piper worked at minimalist constructions, stringent observations of experience, and a range of performances, including the alter ego she called “The Mythic Being.” The “Situation” pieces map what is external or given in an incident (a walk down the stairs and to the grocery store around Hester and Forsythe Streets), to imply the inarticulable additional element that is the self to whom these experiences are given. To map the space in which an experience comes to be is to legitimate, without having captured and reduced, the consciousness that experiences in that space. “Reality adds to mind inductively; mind adds to reality deductively,” as one of her early writings says.
Not only the physical world is outside, because outside is also where you find the social world with all its expectations. The Mythic Being dances to music that no one else hears or speaks phrases whose context and justification are known only to that being. The mental, previously knowing itself afloat within time and space, now increasingly strategizes the grounds for its integrity among surrounding mentalities. Alongside the problem of the external world we have the problem of other minds.
So what is it that other minds see or know when the engagement takes place amid differences in race, sex, and class? Then the very general social expectations that the Mythic Being faces take a pointed and violent form. A recurring panel in the “Decide What You Are” triptychs (1992) overwhelms its human figure, the photograph of a black girl, with repeating texts of language that denies her understanding of things, from the bland initial sentences “It’s fine” and “I didn’t notice anything wrong” into the territory of “You’re the one with the problem,” “You’re being irrational.” For the girl to learn to speak, when this is the language around her, is to acquire proficiency at doubting her own experience. In another context Kant calls the loss of trust in empirical knowledge “the scandal of philosophy.” “Decide What You Are” imagines the concrete loss of trust in one’s own knowledge, not the fate of all rational minds but the path followed by a few insofar as they are barred from the status of rational minds; call this the scandal of social existence.
The expectations of a social world become the beliefs of the art’s audience when the black man on the video screens in “What It’s Like, What It Is” (1991) has to say in every direction of the compass, to everyone seated around that minimalist amphitheater: “I’m not lazy. I’m not horny. I’m not vulgar.” Just to appear to the audience that is a theatricalizing society, he has to identify and disavow, preemptively, the adjectives that that audience comes prepared to attribute to him. The situation allows for only a compromised liberation, given that every sentence out of the man’s mouth has to be negative, not “what it is” despite the piece’s title but what he isn’t. The final burden of entering a conversation about you that has already settled on the words to be used is that you can only join in the conversation by disrupting it, or refusing to go on with the dialogue.
I ran into versions of the same stumbling block with other pieces from the late 1980s and 1990s. Piper expands her attention from the lone subjectivity seeking to know its own integrity, to the beliefs and behaviors of the surrounding audience. She often posits or declares what the audience is thinking, her spiritual exercises having become exorcisms of the watching others who come to her art.
Second-guessing the audience hits home in a piece like “Cornered” (1988). It is a well-known monologue by Piper, the video of her behind a table on a screen that has appropriately been backed into a corner. What does she say she is: black or white? She imagines the objections to either answer, then asks the white people watching why they don’t call themselves black too. Does black culture put them off? Would they rather not know about their African ancestry?
The premise (that one chooses racial identity) might sound dated thirty years later. The provocation is not. Racial identification has cornered Piper, and she’s showing her non-black audience what it might feel like to inhabit a corner. Consider the possibility that you will blunder and contradict yourself when explaining why you call yourself white. Consider whiteness as racial identification not a self-evident fact.
Viewers may deny having the motivations that Piper ascribes to them. But even then the denial of those motives engages the viewers in the act of thinking through identity that Piper invites her audience to join her in. If you come up with different reasons for your position on identity you will still be coming up with some reasons; and now racial identification has come in for newfound thinking.
An essay of Piper’s, “Ideology, Confrontation, and Political Self-Awareness,” uses a similar technique on its readers. There Piper itemizes the “mechanisms” by which people escape self-examination. To read that essay is to enter a fitting room of rationalizations, putting on one after another in order to figure out exactly how you’re putting yourself on.
Elsewhere Piper’s effort to get the jump on her audience works against her. I commented on the limitation to “What It’s Like, What It Is” built into the speaker’s script, as it were, having been generated by an audience antecedently configured as biased. Another difficult case, “Safe #1-4” (1990), displays four photographs of black people in groups with text that says “We are among you”; “We are around you”; “We are within you”; “You are safe.” The captions almost fit the paintings. It is more accurate to say that they offer one reading of the photographs they caption – for example that an image of a family around the dinner table, almost a stereotype of wholesome tradition when the family is white, in this instance invites interpretations about cultural encroachment.
Meanwhile however what sounds like Piper’s voice speaks from above criticizing the installation (“too militant”; “too explicit”). The critical voice contradicts itself, unsure whether to condemn the installation for being obvious or for being indirect. What follows from the criticism’s self-defeat? That this installation can demonstrate its own value by refuting all negative judgments about it? That if it leaves you unmoved you must subscribe to everything this particular hostile voice is saying? One might worry that pre-empting actual voices from outside with a constructed outside voice is unfair to critics; but the unfairness doesn’t even matter as much as the sight of an anxiety behind this process, of a sort that does not usually take over Piper’s work. I don’t say that she should trust her audience. But in such moments, uncharacteristically, she gives the impression of fearing it. The putative external voice seems less to destabilize the viewing experience than to over-stabilize it, allowing the work to play to its own ears.
That Piper can recreate a distinct subjectivity without projecting words onto other people ought to go without saying. Her parents’ smoking habits and deaths provide the subject for one tender and affecting example, “Ashes to Ashes” (1995). She lets Rodney King and George H. W. Bush speak in “Black Box/White Box” (1992) without adding a comment. Descended in their different ways from Piper’s early “Situation” works, these presentations dwell on fact letting her audience’s mind add to the reality deductively.
In one of the last series in this retrospective, the “Everything” pieces of 2010-2013, Piper moves beyond thoughts of her audience and their judgments. “Everything will be taken away.” The sentence appears on photographs or by itself. In one room, four blackboards show the sentence written in chalk, 25 times per blackboard, and increasingly erased away as one advances from the first to the fourth board. Do children in school still have to write something on the board a hundred times? I can’t think of a more economical depiction of a life-lesson: Stoicism on the wall. Heroes are killed, possessions decay, health is soon gone. Then the admonitory words themselves begin to fade. Standing in that room, I couldn’t decide, and I was glad not to be able to decide, whether the fading of the words meant that people go through their lives forgetting that essential Stoic maxim, denying its truth; or that what you might think you still have after all the anguishing experiences of loss, namely the consciousness with integrity that remains and knows the essential nature of loss – that too will go. Even the strategy of reminding yourself of life’s difficulties is a temporary and half-effective strategy. Sorry about that.
Suppose you imagined yourself bringing chalk to those boards to rewrite what has been erased. You make it a full one hundred sentences. Did you just make things better (restoring the intuition’s outward articulation) or worse (insisting on the unwanted news pressing inward with its moral)? These were the kinds of questions that I found the “Everything” series provoking me to ask, even while asserting nothing and promising only Nothing. Down to the end, which is the present, the retrospective sustains its restlessness of thought, the synthesis work still never done, regardless of where you want to locate the origins of its intuitions.