(Synthesis of Intuitions) Philosophy Art Race Religion (Adrian Piper)


A series of black and white photographs, Food for the Spirit (1971) documents the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, holed up and isolated at home, having thrown herself one summer into a close reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  The story is that, subsisting on nothing but juice and water, she lost all sense of herself as a living, embodied being. The photographs elicit that sense, the disappearance of the human subject, the tenuous hold on existence. Piper photographed herself in front of a mirror in a dark space in various states of undress. These are spectral pictures of the human subject hovering between abstraction and figuration, pressed perhaps to the point of madness by questions posed by Kant regarding reality, thinghood, and perception.

Philosophical from start to finish, the worst thing one can say about the work of Adrian Piper is that it moves from pure abstraction suddenly to “political art.” Writing his review of the big retrospective of Piper’s work at MoMA, the aptly named Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016, this is the precise point that Holland Carter got wrong when he wrote here, “But abstraction, in several varieties, proved to be double-edged. On the one hand, it seemed to offer a new, expansive utopian dimension for art, beyond social, racial and aesthetic particularities. At the same time, it was inadequate to deal with undeniable realities of life in the Vietnam era.”

Passing through one gallery after the next, what becomes clear is that the early abstraction was never jettisoned but remains the basis upon which identity and the political are made, the transcendental condition of its possible appearance. Indeed, what one needs to note is that grids and diagrams find their way in the later work. What proves to be the case is that politics and the particular appearance of black lives depend upon what Kant called the synthesis of intuitions across patterns of time and space. There’s strict formal coherence to Piper’s work as a whole, from the start of her career until today. As clarified by the retrospective, the basic programmatic itinerary moves from [1] grids, maps in the first galleries to [2] embodiment, politics, dance and movement, identity and race, in the middle galleries, and then to [3] vanishing points, dissolution, disembodiment, death, release in the last gallery.

You can see these three groupings in the following three slideshows.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Race and “black bodies” are the constant figure in the mass of the large middle section of the retrospective exhibition. There she is, the Mythic Being, a philosophical spoof, a disruptive outside, alien disturber walking through the city. There she is in Funk Lessons teaching mostly white graduate students at Berkeley in the 1980s how to dance. Many of the works push constantly and firmly the comfort level of white people with pictures of middle class and upper middle class African American family life in all its banal normality. In the final video installment outside the main galleries, the image of Piper dancing to house music in the concrete grid pattern of an empty urban space in Berlin is projected onto the wall. Downstairs in the atrium is a large 1991 installation called “What It’s Like, What It Is, #3,” in which the artists continues to explore direct-address performance. You walk into a pure white cube, an auditorium-style seating and mirrors on the wall surrounding a column in the center with video monitors. Onscreen, an African-American man in a deadpan voice with a deadpan eye slowly recites and rejects a long litany of racial slurs: “I’m not pushy. I’m not lazy. I’m not noisy. I’m not shiftless. I’m not crazy. I’m not servile. I’m not stupid.”

This piece which you can read here by Thomas Chatterton Williams is an excellent introduction to Piper’s work, her person, commitment to art and race and then the move away from race. As if returning full circle to Food for the Spirit, caught in the article is the ascetic impulse in Piper’s work and thought, which turns out, in the end, to track towards the mystical and disembodied. What binds up the two moods, the disembodied and spiritual and the political embodied is the artist-philosopher’s biting wit and knack for self-performance.

About the course of an interview with Piper, Williams writes:

I understood exactly why she gave up on race, I told her, but what I couldn’t follow was why she let go of so much else along with it.

“Meat and alcohol, O.K.,” I said. “But why give up on sex?”

“Sex is really wonderful and great fun,” she said with a shrug. “I’m a ’60s hippie person. I’ve had plenty of sex. My priorities changed.” The third vocation of Piper’s life — as important or even more so, she insists, than art or philosophy — is yoga. The concept of yogic celibacy took hold of her around 1985, when she suffered a series of personal setbacks: First, she was denied tenure in the philosophy department at the University of Michigan, and then her marriage fell apart. (Around this same time, she also began collecting her hair and toe- and fingernail clippings in racks of eerie glass bottles now on display at MoMA.) She likened her thinking to a comment she had heard about Michael Jackson’s dancing, that he was all energy, with no physical weight to fight against. “My decision to become celibate helps to transcend the drag of the body,” she told me.

We had been talking for three hours. I ordered a car to take us to dinner at Pauly Saal, a Michelin-starred restaurant that is one of Berlin’s best and Piper’s favorite. It surprised me that this was her spot. “I always jump at the chance to eat at Pauly Saal,” she’d told me, “so as to avoid my own bad cooking, which comprises rabbit food and vitamins.” After combing over the fine print of the tasting menu with the waiter to ensure her portions were strictly vegetarian, she ordered a bottle of still water for herself. As her slight frame folded into the capacious velvet booth, her large brown eyes attentive but tired, she looked again like the ascetic I’d expected.

When the exquisite little dishes arrived, Piper met them with no apparent gusto, almost absent-mindedly. It reminded me of a line from “Escape to Berlin” in which she posits the decidedly anti-bon-vivant notion that “human beings should need to eat only once, so that the resulting fuel intake will see them through a normal human lifespan.” This attitude seems to stem from a larger distrust of the corporeal. Earlier in the car we fell into a discussion about reincarnation, a possibility in which Piper more or less believes. She qualified herself, noting that she did not think our memories would last — we would not be ourselves in any recognizable sense — but that energy can never dissipate. At the end of the short ride to the east, the driver, who had not previously spoken, burst into a spirited conversation with Piper in German. She responded to him at length, as though he were a distinguished colleague at Harvard, making no move to get out of the car before he had finished. “What was that about?” I asked her as we walked inside.

“Oh, well, he brought up a good point,” she said. “Which was that you wouldn’t need memories for the self to persist if you allow for continuity of the soul.”


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to (Synthesis of Intuitions) Philosophy Art Race Religion (Adrian Piper)

  1. mghamner says:

    I like your insights, of course! But I’m confused. I can speculate a connection between becoming-pure reason and her asceticism, but how does race and the political fit into that? Honestly the anticorporeal frame (Kant, then yogic ascetic) makes me a bit skeptical.

    • zjb says:

      You’re right to be confused. What eventually happens is that in the end, she gives up on America and moves to Berlin. In the process she also gives up on race . That was NOT documented in the exhibition, but comes up clearly in the article by Williams

Leave a Reply