Progression of Art
Heaven and Hell
This photograph frames two figures against a mottled backdrop. The first, a nude woman bound at the wrists with rope, throws her head back as blood streams down her neck and torso, whilst the second, dressed in the robes of a Catholic cardinal, turns away dismissively. Serrano explained this image as "referring to the relationship the Church has with women", questioning whether "they are aware of women as human beings or just take them for granted and dismiss them." Despite the artist's straightforward explanation, the work has several potential readings.
The depiction of a bound, nude woman is both a depiction of violence and potentially titillating to its audience, whilst the motivations of the religious leader in the image are similarly unclear. The scene may be one of indifference, culpability, pity, or all three. Many of his early works (1984-87), a period which includes Heaven and Hell, feature a similar mixing of religious iconography and bodily fluids, often used to imply both passion and violence.
The Cardinal is portrayed by American painter and political artist Leon Golub, who collaborated with Serrano on the production of the image. The decision to cast Golub suggests the image is also a critique of the fraught status of women in art and within the art world, with the dispassionate observer of violence played by a successful male artist. Serrano and Golub shared many political positions and originally met through their involvement in the Artists' Call Against US Intervention in Latin America. Following Golub's death in 2004, Serrano praised his friend as "a great artist with great convictions." Reading the photograph is therefore a multi-layered process, with further resonances revealed by the knowledge of Golub's identity, and his collaboration with Serrano in the production of the image.
Divided vertically down the center, this minimal photograph presents two opposed fields of pure white and red. In Milk/Blood the title reveals Serrano's use of bodily fluids to create a photograph with the visual qualities of an abstract painting. He has often said that the titles of his works are essential, in that they 'complete the image and form an integral part of it'. Serrano was photographing bodily fluids, including blood, milk, semen, and urine, throughout the 1980s. These fluids served as subject, content, and form for abstract compositions in the series Body Fluids (of which Milk/Blood is a part), Immersions, and Ejaculates in Trajectory (all series 1989-90). Many critics attribute significance to Serrano's use of bodily fluids at a time when the AIDS crisis was gaining national attention in the US.
The artist's work in these series often reflect his desire to push photography - a medium with inextricable ties to the documentation and the "real" - towards abstraction, which is often more closely associated with painting, particularly in the late-20th century. His work in this period coincided with increased attention to photography from museums and commercial galleries, and often posed a curatorial challenge, as it straddled both photographic traditions and those of painting and other forms. Milk/Blood, for example, is a direct reference to the primary colors and planar geometries of De Stijl founder Piet Mondrian. As Serrano explains, "By abstracting the works, I was doing something that was anti-photography. Photography is about spatial relations, perspective, foreground, background, etc. and I was going against all of that by flattening out the picture plane and eliminating backgrounds, subjects and perspective. I was creating paintings rather than photographs. The works refer to abstract paintings, geometrical paintings, etc."
Serrano's work, alongside Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and others, had a profound influence on the integration of photography into commercial art galleries (rather than galleries specifically devoted to photography). The camera was used in an idiosyncratic fashion as a tool for independent expression, and largely avoided formal conventions of the medium. As he observes, "I was inventing a language for myself which is the language of painting but I adapted it to photography. That's why I always see myself as a conceptual artist with a camera rather than as a photographer."
Piss Christ depicts a crucifix submerged in a Plexiglas tank containing a yellow liquid that is indicated by the title to be urine (likely the artist's own). The photograph's tones range from bright yellow through to orange and dark red, with small, suspended bubbles visible throughout. The work is part of Immersions, a series featuring various Christian devotional objects immersed in urine, water, and/or blood, including a small papal statue (White Pope, 1990) and a miniaturized version of the Last Supper (Black Supper, 1990). Like much of Serrano's early work, it uses bodily fluids to approximate painterly abstraction in a photographic image.
Although Piss Christ was read as sacrilegious and highly contentious in the scandal that followed its display in 1989, Serrano insisted that Piss Christ was not meant to be merely provocative, but should also be seen as a work of devotion. Referencing his Catholic background and upbringing, he explained that the image symbolizes "the way Christ died: the blood came out of him but so did the piss and the shit. [Piss Christ] gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like." Serrano suggests that the picture is also a critique of the commercialization of religion through the mass production of cheap souvenirs. Referencing the ubiquity of the crucifix, he questions whether we still see the bodily horror an object so familiar represents. He argues that, rather than being a benign figurine, a crucifix "represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to death, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So, if Piss Christ upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning."
Piss Christ remains one of the most controversial artworks of the 20th century. Serrano received several death threats in response to the work, and it was widely condemned, maligned and censored by politicians and municipal authorities. In 1989, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) used the image to blast the National Endowment for the Arts' use of public funds to support the creation of "blasphemy and filth" after the piece won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts 'Awards in the Visual Arts', exhibition, which had been sponsored by the NEA. The controversy around Piss Christ was one of the opening salvos to the 'culture wars' of the 1990s, where conservative politicians attempted to systematically undermine arts funding and artists whose work they considered immoral or undesirable. Piss Christ has also been physically attacked numerous times, most recently when it was assaulted with chisel, hammer, and spray paint in Avignon in 2011. It was removed from Associated Press' archive following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015.
Although this controversy dominates much of the writing and thinking around Piss Christ, it is a striking image that has been positively assessed by art historians on a formal level. The visual effect of the urine is often referred to as rendering the figure of Jesus 'luminous', as described in the work of Richard Meyer. Art historian Catherine Bernard similarly writes that in the Immersions pictures "Light bathes the objects of ritual [...] creating translucent effects and 'halos' around the objects, which reiterates their original function as mediators between the profane and the sacred." Despite the artist's denial of shock as his motivation, this work has earned Serrano a reputation as a provocateur, particularly within arts journalism. As art critic Jonathan Jones writes, "With this work, Andres Serrano created what is surely the visual manifesto and original prototype of the use of shock in contemporary art."
Klanswoman Grand Klaliff II
This photograph is a closely cropped shot of an unrecognizable person wearing a white pointed Ku Klux Klan hood, standing against a black background. The only visible part of the subject's body is the eye, seen through the circular hole of the hood.
In the 1990s, Serrano took several photos of two Ku Klux Klan members in their white hooded robes, after contacting the Georgia Klan through the Civil Liberties Union, which defended the rights of the KKK at the time. The series of images he produced show a dark side of American history that still exists today. Serrano says about working on the series that "The fact that I'm not white made it a bigger challenge, as well as the scandal of Piss Christ made me a natural enemy of the Klan. It was a challenge for them to agree to be photographed by somebody who embodied everything the Klan was against. It was difficult and risky too. Some people saw it as a provocation. Perhaps, but these photographs are first of all a confrontation, the desire to look them in the eye and represent them, because I regard the Klan as the outsider and I am an outsider myself. Aside from our antagonism, this similarity interested me."
These photographs have been described by various critics as "menacing", "frightening" and "evil" but also as "beautiful" and "intriguing", resembling high fashion photography. Serrano recounts, "I remember when I first started that work, a friend of mine said, 'These look so noble, they almost look like recruitment posters for the Klan.' As repugnant as that thought was, I had to grapple with the idea that for some, these hooded figures would appear as heroic knights rather than symbols of hatred and oppression. So as much as I dislike what the Klan stands for, I had to put aside my personal feelings and photograph them in the spirit of tolerance and compassion." Art historian Mark Thistlethwaite writes that "Most museum viewers likely associate violence, hatred, fear, and militancy with the Ku Klux Klan, and few probably have encountered a Klan member close up. Serrano offers a safe opportunity to satisfy our curiosity." Thistlethwaite goes on to say that the high contrast between the black background and white hooded robes, as well as the fact that the subjects' faces and bodies are almost entirely cloaked, "renders the figure as mysterious and spooky. The one prominent eye opening in the hood [...] conceals the individual within and suggests the emptiness of a hollow man."
In this photograph, a male body seen only from the chest up lays horizontally on a white surface spotted with his blood. Dark red fabric shrouds the subject's head and hides his face. A fresh wound is visible on the shoulder nearest the viewer and autopsy sutures down the subject's chest are visible, although slightly out of focus.
Serrano gained permission to photograph corpses at an unnamed morgue in an American city, provided that none of the subjects would be recognizable in the images. The result was The Morgue, a series of close-up images of dead bodies that strongly reference visual qualities of Baroque art in their rich color palette and preoccupation with the physicality of each body and its wounds. In Homicide, the raw cuts and blood seeping from the body are contrasted against the rich red of the hood and the clean white of the table. The title of each image in the series relates the subject's cause of death, including Killed by Four Great Danes, Fatal Meningitis, Hacked to Death, Child Abuse, Blood Transfusion Resulting in AIDS, Infectious Pneumonia, and Rat Poison Suicide. Serrano says of working on the series that "It was a spiritual quest [...] When I got to the morgue, I learned that people don't know what kind of death is in store for us. It's not the death you thought you'd have or the one you deserved. Most of the people who ended up in the morgue died in horrible accidents, suicide, murder and terrible diseases. Very rarely did I encounter somebody who died of old age. I always felt they were alive in some way. There was a soul to each individual."
Each photograph shows only a small part of the human body, such as a foot, a hand, or a veiled face. Serrano suggests that "focusing on details gives their individual qualities more expression. As well as the human being still present, these details symbolize death, sometimes horrible and violent barbaric, sometimes cunning and peaceful." He also explains his choice of close-cropped images by saying that "I felt that concentrating on a detail could tell me more than the whole." Serrano chose to use a black backdrop for all the images in the series. He says "by using a device such as a black background, I'm able to alienate the subject from its environment and put it into a studio context. Also, I find black a very inspirational color, and in the case of the morgue, it seems to suggest a void which is appropriate". By associating death with classical beauty (through the use of chiaroscuro-like lighting as well as veiling), but through the realistic lens of photography rather than the "safer" and more distancing medium of painting, Serrano pushes the viewer to face death and mortality more directly.
As journalist Amy Lin writes about the series: "At the same time captivating and incredibly unsettling the photographs not only capture the fragility of our existence but more conspicuously, the loneliness closely related to the phenomenon of death."
Colt D.A. 45
In this image, a gun is photographed using shallow focus, with the camera pointing down the barrel. The background is bright orange, with the camera giving the out-of-focus body of the gun a red halo.
This photograph comes from Objects of Desire, a series of aestheticized close-up photographs of guns taken by Serrano in the early 1990s. Serrano explains the motivation behind the project, saying that "The title of this series comes from the Buñuel film That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). I'm a big fan of his work. Having to work in New Orleans, I focused on the weapons that circulate there freely and everything a hand gun can mean as a psychic substitute. There I met gun collectors − men, never women − who treat these weapons like works of art, who respect them, admire them and covet them." According to the artist the guns in this series of photographs were all loaded. Serrano suggested that because of this "The desire was also a threat. I like the idea of looking death in the eye, of facing danger." This element of threat is exemplified by Colt D.A. 45, where the viewer feels momentarily in danger, literally at gunpoint. Serrano says "We look at the photograph but it stares back at us. It erects something against us and confronts us. This is an important aspect of my work."
This photograph presents an elderly woman, seen naked from the waist up. She stares confidently at the camera whilst embracing the thighs of a young, athletic male body to the right of the image (visible from the knee to the waist). The male body is also naked, with his flaccid penis positioned very closely to the woman's mouth. There are several piercings through his scrotum. The background of the image, though out of focus, shows that the couple is outdoors, in a grassy field.
From 1995-96, Serrano photographed various couples and individuals for the series A History of Sex. In each photograph, a different sexual identity or activity is portrayed, several of which might be considered taboo or deviant by some viewers. Subjects (including transgendered individuals, homosexual couples, the elderly, and people with a disability) pose proudly, even heroically, often gazing defiantly back at the viewer, as they present their bodies and sexual preferences to the camera. Several of the images are shot out-of-doors, with sky, trees, grass, and beaches visible in the backgrounds, challenging the convention that they are kept private, hidden or unacknowledged. Critical reception of the series has labelled them as both erotic art and pornography, as well as alluring and highly aestheticized presentations of identity. The series was vandalized in 2007 when they were on display at the Kulturen Gallery in Lund, Sweden by vandals in black masks carrying axes and crowbars, who shouted "We don't support this shit!".
In this photograph, American businessman and television personality Donald Trump, who would in 2016 be elected as the 45th President of the United States, is depicted in a portrait from the chest up. He wears a blue suit with a white shirt and red striped tie, and looks directly into the camera. The mottled background of grey, orange, and yellow is brighter directly behind the subject's head, perhaps suggesting a halo or aura. Guardian art journalist Jonathan Jones wrote of the Donald Trump portrait in 2016 that it is shocking in "that it is not an aggressive, satirical image of the strangest ever contender for the US presidency. It is a straight, close-up portrait [...] He can even see the human in Trump. His portrait is like a waxwork image of a powerful man, glaring enigmatically at the camera." The humanizing quality of this image is perhaps even more noticeable following Trump's election and assumption of the role of President. In much of his later portrait work Serrano courts shock and controversy through his attempt to engage with his subjects, rather than alienate or provoke through iconoclasm.
This photograph comes from the America series that Serrano worked on between 2001-04 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. The series is comprised of over 100 portraits of Americans, including celebrities like Donald Trump and rapper Snoop Dogg, as well as a cub scout, a child beauty queen, a pimp, a postal worker, a crack addict, and a Holocaust survivor. Serrano says of the series, "I tried to define my version of America in 2001 through 2004 [...] I did America because I felt we had been attacked as the enemy in September 11th, so I wanted to define who the enemy was. I did over 100 portraits, it took me three years to do the work, and I photographed people from all walks of life including some celebrities, like Donald Trump. At the time I ran into Nancy Spero and I said 'Nancy, I've got a new show and it's called America.' And Nancy laughed and said 'Whose America?' And I said 'Why, my America, of course!' We all have our own version of America. In a way, America is a state of mind. Everyone wants to claim it."
Ryan McMahon and Shelly Cornetta McMahon
In this photograph, a young couple sits against a green wall, looking towards the viewer. Several elements of the image indicate to the viewer that the couple are homeless, from their heavy coats, gloves and hats to the heavy blanket covering them and the hand-written cardboard sign visible in the bottom right corner. This image is part of the series Residents of New York.
The homeless population has been the focus of Serrano's work more than once. In 1990 he created the series Nomads, wherein he photographed homeless New Yorkers against studio backdrops set up in subway stations. Then in 2013, Serrano produced the Signs of the Times series, for which he bought the hand-written signs used by homeless people to solicit change from passersby. In January of 2014, Serrano photographed several homeless New Yorkers in the locations where he encountered them (instead of against a backdrop) for Residents of New York, which was sponsored by More Art, an organization committed to bringing art to public spaces. Not only does Serrano give agency and identity to people who are homeless by photographing them, he also makes a bold statement on their status as citizens through the title of the series. He says, "I chose not to use the word homeless in the title, but to call them "Residents of New York" instead, in order to acknowledge them as being residents who are very much a part of the city." In discussing the different influences behind the two series, Nomads and Residents of New York, Serrano say "The Nomads portraits that I had done in the subway referenced my love of Edward Curtis and his photographs of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century, where he took the studio to them; he took backdrops with him. But before I started the Residents series I started to look at the WPA photographs by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, all the great photographers who were called in at the moment of the Great Depression and actually recruited by the government to document, record, and monumentalize what was happening in America at that time. In these works I felt like I wanted to reference that work." Finally, in 2015, he created a series similar to Residents of New York but in Belgium, titled Denizens of Brussel. In all of his series on homeless citizens, Serrano aims to bring visibility to this generally unseen population. He says "In fact it's a very curious thing, more than once, as I was photographing someone, the person that I was photographing said to me, 'that person always goes by me every day and has never put money in my cup, and because you're taking my picture now they just put a dollar in there.' And I found that to be true on numerous occasions. And it's almost like these people are there but you didn't notice them until you saw me there with an assistant taking a portrait of them, and then you acknowledge them enough to say, okay, I can give you some money."
When Serrano approached the couple in this photograph about taking their portrait, he recalls "I looked at him and I looked in his eyes and I said, wow, your eyes are very yellow. And he explained to me that, yes, he'd been sick with jaundice, and he'd been to the hospital and they'd given him medication. So I took his portrait and didn't think anything of it. And then two weeks later I found out that the boy died. He was probably in his late-20s. Mine is the last portrait of him. It's a very odd thing, because someone who I know saw the portrait that I took of that man and she said to me, 'I've seen that guy on the streets and I never liked him, but now, looking at your portrait, I feel something for him.' And when I told her that he had died two weeks later she felt even more strongly."