Why Is Everyone Sleeping On Adrian Piper’s Teenage Doll Paintings?

Adrian Piper, Barbara Epstein and Doll, 1966, acrylic on canvas with doll (photo by Danielle Wu)

You know I love dolls. That’s what John Waters snarled at Marion and me when we dragged our favored doll Carol Anne to meet her Uncle John at a book signing at Gagosian’s Upper East Side bookstore. Though I think of John’s demented doll declaration frequently, his words resonated especially deeply as soon as I caught a glimpse of Adrian Piper’s two paintings Self-Portrait at Age 5 with Doll and Barbara Epstein and Doll in her expansive retrospective Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 at the Museum of Modern Art

A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016 features some of Piper’s most iconic works interrogating race, passing and gender such as her calling cards, her series of works embodying the character of the Mythic Being and her Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, all of which will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a Contemporary Art History survey course. However, those didn’t draw me in like a moth to an uncanny flame. Instead, I was overcome in the wake of Piper’s bizarre and lesser-known early works with dolls, made when she was still a teenager. And apparently I’m one of the only ones since a cursory Google search brings up little to nothing on these doll paintings, even though every art critic has scrambled to have a hot take on Piper’s show. Well, as Charles Ludlam says, “If nobody wants it, come to me!”

Located in the first room of MoMA’s sixth floor exhibition space, I, at first, didn’t see these two masterpieces, turning, instead, toward Piper’s early experimentations with minimalism and conceptual art. Snooze. Making my way around the room, though, I audibly gasped as my eyes were caught by the dead-eyed stare of the dolls affixed to both Self-Portrait at Age 5 with Doll and Barbara Epstein and Doll. Both from 1966 when Piper was just 18, these two paintings feature ghostly photorealistic paintings of young girls–Barbara and Piper herself–holding what appear to be the creepiest dolls Piper could cull from the thrift store castoff bins. The doll in Self-Portrait at Age 5 with Doll is eerily white and nude with unseeing black eyes opening up to the abyss and dry, crunchy grey hair that looks as if it’s about to crumble onto the floor, while the doll in Barbara Epstein and Doll seems, at first, a bit more conventional in a red polka dot dress though I suspect I heard her muttering, “REDRUM.” With the dolls stuck to the canvas, the paintings seem like something you’d bring home from a flea market that would turn out to be haunted. Drawers and cabinets would open in your kitchen, knives would be found in strange places and you’d know why: THE DOLLS.

Adrian Piper, The Barbie Doll Drawings, 1967, Rapidograph pen, ink, and/or pencil on thirty-five sheets of notebook paper (© 2018 Adrian Piper; via MoMA)

These two paintings are connected, at least conceptually, to Piper’s series, on view nearby, of Barbie Drawings, which she completed a year later in 1967. Shown in a grid, these drawings transform Barbie into an abject amalgamation of parts–errant limbs, faces peeking out from apparent lumps of flesh and misshapen exaggerated feminine features. Rather than burning Barbie or ripping her head off like other disgruntled children, disgusted with Barbie’s representation as the go-to feminine ideal, Piper rearranged and reconfigured her parts, turning her into the monstrous creation she always was. As chief co-curator of A Synthesis of Intuitions Christophe Cherix told The Cut on Piper’s Barbie Drawings, “She’s thinking about childhood and how childhood shapes the way we perceive society around us. She’s an African-American artist, and a lot of the dolls that are commonly available are white.”

The two doll paintings, though rarely if ever analyzed, also engage with how these childhood objects shape self-perception and the perception of society. And sure, these could easily be brushed off as early teenage rebellion, an impulse to shock and horrify with some unnerving Bride of Chucky-esque dolls. This, I assume, might account for the lack of attention paid to them. But, these two paintings also reveal glimmers of Piper’s later exploration of the boundaries of race and gender.

In particular, Self-Portrait at Age 5 with Doll and Barbara Epstein and Doll recall the famous Clark doll tests from the 1940s, which became essential to the Brown v. Board of Education verdict showing the effect of segregation on Black children. Led by social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the Clark doll tests discovered that the majority of children, no matter their race, would choose a blond hair, blue-eyed doll rather than a Black doll, revealing the impact of white supremacy on even young children. Since the tests were much discussed in the two decades leading up to Piper’s paintings, it’s hard to imagine that Piper wasn’t impacted by the tests’ discourse whether consciously or just unconsciously, particularly as a Black student attending almost all white primary and secondary prep schools in New York.

Now, even though the Doll Tests were carried out in the 1940s and 1950s, later tests have come to the same conclusions. As Anne Anlin Cheng notes in her The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, “In 1995, the Boston Herald featured an article on the toy giant Mattel who spent millions of dollars in market research and new product development only to find, as the article muses, what Kenneth Clark could have told them nearly fifty years ago: that African American (and other ethnic) children, given the chance, would rather play with a blond, blue-eyed Barbie than dolls that ‘look more like themselves’” (6). More recently, filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the Clark Tests for her film A Girl Like Me in 2005 and found that, even around a half-century later, kids were still choosing the white dolls.

Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait at Age 5 with Doll, 1966, oil on canvas with doll (photo by Danielle Wu)

In The Melancholy of Race, Cheng uses the Clark doll experiments as a means to discuss “the psychical imprints of racial grief” (6). As she continues, “There are still deep-seated, intangible, psychical complications for people living within a ruling episteme that privileges that which they can never be. This does not at all mean that the minority subject does not develop other relations to that injunctive ideal which can be self-affirming or sustaining, but rather that a painful negotiation must be undertaken, at some point if not continually, with the demands of that social ideality, the reality of that always-insisted upon difference” (7).

With Self-Portrait at Age 5 with Doll and Barbara Epstein and Doll, Piper certainly takes on this painful negotiation with that ideal. Both figures–Epstein who appears to be white and Piper who is Black–hold white dolls. Just like the children in the Clark doll tests, they chose the white ones too. However, in Piper’s hands, these white dolls are not the prime example of Caucasian childhood perfection. Instead, they are nightmarish like zombie children of the uncanny valley. While perhaps to the girls in the paintings, they’re preferred, to the viewers, we see these dolls as what they are–frightening and just a tad threatening as if they’re going to shuffle right off the canvas and potentially murder you like a tacky b-movie.

These paintings both expose the hidden monster within preferred white dolls and consequently, womanhood. As Cheng writes, “Beneath the reductionist, threatening diagnosis of ‘inferiority complex’ or ‘white preference’ there runs a fraught network of ongoing psychical negotiation instigated and institutionalized by racism. The connection between subjectivity and social damage needs to be formulated in terms more complicated than either resigning colored people to the irrevocability of ‘self-hatred’ or denying racism’s profounding, lasting effects” (7). Piper does this perfectly–not by resignation or denial–but through a healthy dose of humor and horror, which is apparent in much of her later work as seen in the MoMA retrospective.

Filthy Dreams pop quiz: Where does this doll come from? Hint: it’s not hell

But, perhaps these two paintings also take on more meaning in retrospect. Piper is certainly not the only artist to use creepy af dolls in her artwork. However, that trope, at least in my mind, is very often connected to white women artists and performers. Of course, there’s Lauren Kelley’s photographs and videos using Black Barbie dolls, but she’s engaging with the toys in a different manner. From Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Dollie Clone series with “CyberRoberta” and “Tillie the Telerobotic Doll” to Portia Munson’s paintings of dolls to Lydia Lunch’s unintentionally hilarious doll-filled video “Dance of the Dead Children” and even, the cover of Babes in Toyland’s album Fontanelle, destroyed and disturbing dolls became the domain for white feminist artists, particularly (for some reason) in the 1990s. These dolls were indicative of a rebellion against the idealized form of girlhood imposed on women.

And at MoMA with the display of these doll paintings, Piper isn’t exactly reclaiming this engagement with dolls from the hands of white women artists. Instead, she did it first.

2 thoughts on “Why Is Everyone Sleeping On Adrian Piper’s Teenage Doll Paintings?

  1. Emily
    I just came across your essay …a direction that will be somewhat realized in in upcoming installation ……in a small museum in Vancouver Canada.. ..Adrian Pipers “Barbara Epstein and Doll” is in my collection …I am writing to let you know that your essay was channeling an upcoming installation from our collection that will include… Adrian’s work and others including the work of … Gordon Parks, “doll test”(1947) in our museum in 2020…along with Jae Jarell’s “Frock You”(1994)…my note is just to thank you for confidence you gave in the direction of an upcoming install….b

    • Hi Bob,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’m flattered that my essay gave your upcoming installation some confidence. It sounds like a great idea for an install.

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