Adrian Piper’s landmark 2018 retrospective “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016” debuted at The Museum of Modern Art, where it occupied—both in a literal and political sense—the entirety of the museum’s special sixth floor exhibition space. It was the largest show MoMA had ever assembled for a living artist. At first blush, Piper would seem a conspicuous recipient of such an honor. Her work engages with and methodically deconstructs complex, polarizing social issues such as racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Installed at MoMA, the retrospective revealed an institution acknowledging and embracing its political essence, elevating the cerebral, often caustic and ecstatic art of an African American woman.
Piper was born in New York City to parents of mixed racial background and raised in a cosmopolitan environment. She enrolled in the School of Visual Arts in 1966, but dropped out the following year to pursue a degree in philosophy at the City College of New York. She completed her doctorate in the field at Harvard in 1981. Concurrent with her transition from training in art to studying thought, Piper moved from figuration toward Minimalist abstraction and Conceptualism. However, these disciplines alone proved woefully inadequate to address the cruelty and turbulence of modern American life in the Vietnam era. The US invasion of Cambodia and the killing of American students at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 constituted an awakening for Piper, and propelled her to engage with her own identity in the context of a violently racist society.
The present lot belongs to Piper’s 1992 series “Decide Who You Are,” consisting of large-scale photomontages interwoven with fragments and passages of red text, a repeated childhood photograph of Anita Hill and a pencil drawing of three monkeys respectively covering their ears, eyes and mouth—a cliché symbol of the maxim “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” The works in “Decide Who You Are” incorporate formal components of drawings Piper executed decades earlier, in the series “Drawing About Paper” and “Writing About Words,” 1967. In these works, realized in pencil and collage on graph paper, Piper divided the blank page into abstract sections delineated by vertical lines and blocks of typewritten words or phrases suggesting concrete poetry. The typewritten word takes on a much more confrontational and aggressive tone in the “Decide Who You Are” series, where it creates a capitalized cascade of assertions and evasions: “YOU’RE TOO UPSET TO THINK CLEARLY.” “WHY IS THAT OBJECTIONABLE?” “IT’S NOT YOUR PLACE TO SAY THAT.” Because the text is superimposed on the childhood photograph of Anita Hill, it raises the specter of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination and the notorious sexual harassment hearings that transfixed the nation, events that have become obviously and disturbingly relevant in current American politics.