Adrian Piper

Race, Gender, and Embodiment

Adrian Piper

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 69 illus., incl. 17 in color Published: February 2011

Author: John P. Bowles

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Art and Visual Culture > Feminist Art, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

In 1972 the artist Adrian Piper began periodically dressing as a persona called the Mythic Being, striding the streets of New York in a mustache, Afro wig, and mirrored sunglasses with a cigar in the corner of her mouth. Her Mythic Being performances critically engaged with popular representations of race, gender, sexuality, and class; they challenged viewers to accept personal responsibility for xenophobia and discrimination and the conditions that allowed them to persist. Piper’s work confronts viewers and forces them to reconsider assumptions about the social construction of identity. Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment is an in-depth analysis of this pioneering artist’s work, illustrated with more than ninety images, including twenty-one in color.

Over the course of a decade, John P. Bowles and Piper conversed about her art and its meaning, reception, and relation to her scholarship on Kant’s philosophy. Drawing on those conversations, Bowles locates Piper’s work at the nexus of Conceptual and feminist art of the late 1960s and 1970s. Piper was the only African American woman associated with the Conceptual artists of the 1960s and one of only a few African Americans to participate in exhibitions of the nascent feminist art movement in the early 1970s. Bowles contends that Piper’s work is ultimately about our responsibility for the world in which we live.


“An amount of scholarship and personal acquaintance makes this book an informative read that leaves one wanting to know more about Piper’s exemplary approach to the question of what it might mean to make political art.” — Maria Walsh, Art Monthly

“Bowles’s Adrian Piper: Race, Gender and Embodiment offers a detailed view of an artist dealing with the contingency of identity. . . . The inclusion of more than a decade of personal communication between Bowles and Piper make this a particularly fascinating study.” — Jordana Moore Saggese, CAA Reviews

“While there is much written about Piper, there are few volumes dedicated exclusively to such a complete investigation of her artistic career. It is a great addition to contemporary art scholarship, and is therefore recommended for any academic or research library that supports such pursuits.” — Melanie Emerson, ARLIS/NA Reviews

“With a well-organized index and bibliography, this monograph will be useful for specialists in contemporary African American art. An examination of Piper ’s sophisticated work and writing would make a challenging graduate seminar for students of art history or ethnic/women’s studies.” — Stacy E. Schultz, Woman's Art Journal

“[A] thoughtful study of the artist’s early work…” — Margo Hobbs Thompson, Signs

“By locating Piper’s art within various political, aesthetic, and philosophical contexts, this final chapter realizes some of the book’s best qualities by providing the reader with an understanding of the artwork’s political, historical, and aesthetic complexities without depriving the artist of her own. Moreover, Bowles’ multidisciplinary approach advances an engagement with an artist who undoubtedly should be listened to more.” — Sarah Jane Cervenak, Women & Performance

"[B]y placing Piper in a critical relationship to feminist and Black Arts practices and insisting on the importance of her Minimalist and Conceptual strategies, Bowles highlights the ways in which her work makes crucial connections between canonical 1960s and 1970s discourses. He thus positions his text to radically revise the field’s understanding of Piper’s overall project, as well as the importance of her early work." — Megan Driscoll, Art Journal

Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment is an important book. John P. Bowles has much to say not only about Piper’s own artistic journey but also about how scholars have chosen to read the avant-garde creative production of the 1960s and 1970s, and whether or not one can ever escape the ‘burden of the flesh’ when one creates or interprets works of art.” — Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, author of Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker

“John P. Bowles’s Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment is a groundbreaking, meticulously researched, and beautifully written text that challenges its readers to understand Adrian Piper’s early work in provocative new ways. Bowles forces us to re-evaluate our understanding of the histories of Conceptualism, Minimalism, feminism, and their intersections with the visual practices of African American artists.” — Steven Nelson, University of California, Los Angeles


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

John P. Bowles is Associate Professor of African American Art at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His articles and art criticism have appeared in Signs, American Art, Art Journal, Art in America, and Art Papers, among other publications.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Adrian Piper's Performance of Race and the Moral Question of Racism 1

Section I, 1965–1970
The Paradox of the Black Woman Conceptual Artist

1. Contingent and Universal: Adrian Piper and the Minimalist Ideal 33

2. Hypothesis: Modernism and the Woman Artist's Studio 69

Section II, 1970–1975
Personal Politics and Performance Art

3. May 1970: Art and Activism 125

4. Catalysis: Feminist Art and Experience 162

5. Food for the Spirit: Transcendence and Desire 205

6. "Acting Like a Man": The Mythic Being and Black Feminism 229

Conclusion: The Mythic Being and the Aesthetics of Direct Address 257

Notes 263

Bibliography 299

Index 319
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4920-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4896-2
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