American Photographer and Conceptual Artist
New York, New York
Summary of Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano is an American artist notorious for the controversial content of his photographic works. His best-known pieces are large format images of objects (frequently religious in nature) and studio portraiture, often featuring titles that unambiguously describe the process of creating the work. These processes have included submerging a crucifix in urine, taking photographs of recently deceased bodies just brought into a city morgue, and producing portraits of members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the late 1980s his practice was highlighted as an example of work that was deliberately confrontational and designed to shock the audience. His potent mix of religious imagery, bodily fluids, sex, violence, and death was labelled obscene by conservative politicians and advocacy groups, his photograph Piss Christ in particular becoming a flashpoint in what became known as the 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s in America. Serrano has always maintained that shock is not his primary goal, and points to the formal qualities of the images, their relevance to political issues (such as intolerance or sensationalism) and their relation to particular moments in art history as being his key motivation and intention.
- The imagery and content of Serrano's work is often a challenge to mainstream propriety or sensibilities. He produces images that combine the sacred, such as religious iconography, with the what might be called the profane: sex, bodies and their fluids, poverty, death, and/or violence. Even his studio portraiture presents controversial subjects in highly stylized ways, framing a homeless person or a loaded gun in the same way as they might be the subject in a Renaissance portrait or classical still-life.
- His photographs, whilst controversial, also suggest a sustained social critique. Serrano uses the shock of seeing a crucifix in urine, feces decorated with glitter, or a nude and bound figure to comment on the influence of religion in society, the positioning of bodies and their waste as shameful, or the treatment of women and other people marginalized in contemporary society.
- His formally accomplished and often very beautiful images of taboo subjects brought the kind of provocation common in the punk-influenced East Village Art scene of the 1980s into a mainstream art context, partly as a result of the controversy they provoked in the national and international media. This laid the groundwork for later artists to utilize similar imagery and still be taken up by large and established galleries and museums, often in turn generating further media scandal.
- Serrano considers himself simply an artist rather than a photographer, insisting that his camera is the tool he uses to express himself rather than a form whose techniques or conventions he is attached to. His images are remarkably consistent across his career in their use of shallow focus, high contrast, and vivid color. Serrano foregrounds the idea behind his pictures, and their subject and title, as the main ways in which his photographs generate meaning rather than the technical processes behind them.
- Serrano's work is steeped in art historical reference. His images featuring religious iconography are heavily influenced by Baroque painting, for example, whilst his more abstract presentations of bodily fluids reference the blocks of color of Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl movement and the swirls of Abstract Expressionism. His use of bodily fluids references previous artists and artworks who have done the same, such as Piero Manzoni, who created Artist's Shit in 1961 by supposedly filling ninety tin cans with his own feces. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Andy Warhol too also experimented with the chemical interactions of urine and copper in his Oxidation Paintings. Serrano's work with urine, feces, blood, milk, and semen in photography also has important precedents in Performance Art, such as the work of Carolee Schneemann or Vito Acconci, artists both active in New York in the 1970s when Serrano lived in the East Village.
Biography of Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano was born in Manhattan on August 15, 1950, and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as an only child in an American family of Honduran and Afro-Cuban origin. His father was a Honduran immigrant, and his mother, although born in Florida, was raised in Cuba and spoke only Spanish. Serrano insists that his background is a quintessentially American one, reflecting the diversity of the country and New York as a city.
Important Art by Andres Serrano
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."