- Adrian Piper, Then and Again
While ambling through the special exhibition gallery space on the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) sixth floor where nearly three hundred works by the visual artist, philosopher, and self-avowed yoga enthusiast Adrian Piper were on view in Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 (March 31–July 22, 2018), I found myself surprisingly overcome by an intense bout of emotions. Minutes after they had first piqued my curiosity, I decided to make my way over to a trio of what, from a distance, looked like family photos—one in black-and-white, and two in color—to read the passage on display alongside them. The text, I discovered upon scanning it attentively, told the story of a married couple that had once shared a deep passion for socializing, dancing, loving one another, and cigarette smoking. Although the wife had given up the latter habit in her fifties, contracting emphysema some time thereafter, the husband found it impossible to desist from puffing. Cancer would ultimately take over his pharynx, throat, and mouth, leaving her to watch him waste away into death. She, the passage explained, would press on for as long as she could, but when the struggle to breathe became too overwhelming, she took to praying to rejoin her love, smiling at the thought of their eventual reunion.
I adjusted my stance after coming to the end of the passage to inspect the black-and-white photograph featuring a younger version of the couple, sharply dressed, holding each other intimately in front of a non-descript skyline. A large pipe dangled loosely from the man's lips. While his slight smirk suggested that the object had, at one time, been a source of great pleasure, I couldn't help but think about the pain that I knew it later caused both him and his family. I shifted my gaze once more to take in the color photograph of his visibly much older wife lying in a bed with her head full of gray hair perched on a pillow and a tube pumping life-sustaining oxygen into her nose. It was then that the feeling of loss struck me most forcefully. Piper, whose artistic practice has spanned more than five decades and an impressive array of mediums, is known for risking a lot of herself in her work. Still, I was unprepared for the particular affective charge the profoundly personal text and photographs would summon. [End Page 29]
It was only after I had exited MoMA's elegant, ever-expanding confines that I learned that, much like many of the other works exhibited in the retrospective Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuition, 1965–2016, the piece, Ashes to Ashes (1995), had a fascinating and controversial history. A year after her mother's death in 1994, Piper was set to present an example of her early engagements with conceptualism along with more than fifty other artists as a part of the exhibition 1965–1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art curated by Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. She pulled the work that she had intended to put on view, however, after learning that Phillip Morris, one of the world's largest cigarette and tobacco manufacturing companies, was underwriting the endeavor. She offered to replace the piece with Ashes to Ashes instead, but the museum rejected her proposal. Perhaps most remarkable about belatedly coming across this information on the origins of a piece so emotionally compelling were the ways that it helped underscore for me a theme that reverberates throughout the artist's life and her formidable body of work. Piper has consistently demonstrated a commitment to confronting the existing state of things directly, often catalyzing supporters of her work to do the same by affording them unexpected brushes with insight, intuition, and feeling.
Curated by Christophe Cherix, Connie Butler, and David Platzker in collaboration with Piper (with Tessa Ferreyros), the exhibit brought into sharp focus the diverse range of aesthetic strategies that the pioneering artist has deployed over the years to, as she puts it, "induce a reaction or change" in...