Pippa Garner likes to joke that her breasts are as old as I am. She underwent her first breast augmentation surgery in the late 1980s, when the people who would become her most dedicated advocates—people like myself—were in our infancy, or not even born yet. Garner, born in 1942 in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, was in her mid-40s at the time and known, in the worlds of publishing, television, and fine art, as Philip Garner, a modestly successful conceptual-cum-commercial artist, illustrator, and writer. Earlier in the 1980s, Garner had appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in a midriff-baring “half-suit,” there to promote her first book of satirical consumer inventions, Philip Garner’s Better Living Catalog. (Made out of khaki wool, the half-suit, which Garner handcrafted herself, looked like a precursor to Miu Miu’s coveted spring/summer 2022 collection.)
After Garner’s first book did well, a sequel followed. Invitations to exhibit in museums and galleries were also plentiful. Then, at the height of her career, Garner decided to start gender-hacking. Describing the decision as an “aha” moment of inspiration, she explains, “I never felt born in the wrong body,” but was instead struck by the idea of toying with gender norms and using her own body as an art form. Privately dosing on black-market estrogen wasn’t enough; by 1988, she became determined to enhance her bust. But the surgery seemed unaffordable until Garner remembered she had something valuable in her possession: a print by the artist Ed Ruscha. She and Ruscha, who knew each other through the Los Angeles art world, had made a trade of their work years prior. When Garner sold her Ruscha print, the amount offered for it was exactly the same as the cost of a breast augmentation operation. She considered this a sign.
Figuring a periodical would surely publish them, Garner collected model release forms and quotes from all of her subjects, like Miss Karen Edwards, a 20-year-old server at Bryan’s Pit Barbeque at the Original Farmers Market in Fairfax, who said: “You meet people from Europe, from the United States, Canada, everywhere. That’s what’s so fascinating about the job. I meet all these foreign people that come in here and don’t speak English. I just say, ‘beans’ or you know, ‘sweet potatoes.’” But for the first and only time, Garner couldn’t find a magazine that was interested in her work! Her Coffeeshop Waitresses series wasn’t “punchy” or “salacious” enough, she guesses, for the magazines of those days. It’s nice to see things change.
Fiona Alison Duncan is the co-curator of “Pippa Garner: Act Like You Know Me,” together with Maurin Dietrich, Gloria Hasnay, and Gina Merz. The show—Garner’s first solo exhibition in Europe—is on view at Kunstverein Munich through November 13, followed by a run at Kunsthalle Zurich from February to May 2023.