Andres Serrano - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Conceptual Artist
New York, New York
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.
Whilst he was still a young boy his father abandoned the family to return to Honduras, leaving Serrano to be raised by his mother. As she was frequently hospitalized by bouts of psychosis, Serrano was left alone for a large portion of his childhood. Influenced by his mother, Serrano was "born and raised a Catholic', as was usual in the predominantly Italian-American Williamsburg at that time. Rituals of the church played a key part in his childhood, and religious iconography had a profound influence on the development of his aesthetic sensibilities. The artist says that he "has been a Christian all my life. When I was eight years old, I made my holy communion. When I was 12, I made my confirmation, and then I stopped going to church for about 20 years."
Education and Early Training
During a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Serrano fell in love with Renaissance and Baroque painting, and became fascinated with its religious iconography. He returned to the museum alone whenever possible to look at the paintings in its collection. At 15, he dropped out of high school with the dream of pursuing a career as an artist. He attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School from 1967-69 but didn't start working as a serious artist until some years later. After art school he lived in the East Village of New York, a vibrant yet run-down neighborhood home to many other artists, musicians and filmmakers. The East Village was also a center of drug culture and addiction in the city, and Serrano began experimenting with and selling drugs during this time. As he describes, he "turned my back on being an artist and became a drug addict instead. I stayed a drug addict until my late twenties when my biological clock told me that if I stayed in that life in my thirties there'd be no turning back."
At 28, Serrano quit drugs and began to work more conventional jobs, including time as an assistant art director at an advertising firm. Through this work, he became more familiar with photography, and decided that, as he did not feel that he was particularly gifted at painting or sculpture, it was his ideal art-making medium. As he says "I've never called myself a photographer. I studied painting and sculpture and see myself as an artist with a camera. I learned everything I know about art from Marcel Duchamp who taught me that anything, including a photograph, could be a work of art."
Serrano returned to making his own work consistently in 1983, developing a practice that was based in his studio as it allowed the careful management and composure of his images. The use of religious iconography referenced the Baroque art that had captivated him growing up, and the artist suggests that the use of his bodily fluids is an attempt to "personalize religion for myself". The importance of his work's titles and their ability to clarify the content of the image are, according to the artist, an influence of his time working in advertising.
After showing in group exhibitions in the East Village art scene of the early 1980s, Serrano began to exhibit his work more consistently, including his first solo show at Leonard Perlson Gallery in 1985. He was taken on by Stux Gallery in 1986-7, alongside contemporaries such as Lawrence Carroll and Vik Muniz. In 1987, Stux was the first gallery to exhibit Piss Christ, Serrano's now infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in what the title suggests is the artist's urine. This image and its subsequent display in an exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts brought Serrano to national attention as a key figure in the 'culture wars' of the 1990s, with the work and artist denounced by politicians, advocacy groups, and religious organisations. The resulting controversy brought Serrano worldwide notoriety and fame, and positioned his work at the forefront of debates about public funding of controversial art and of censorship. In 1989, Serrano was denounced on the floor of the United States Senate by Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY), who said that Piss Christ was an "outrage", "obscenity" and "disgrace" before ripping up a reproduction from an exhibition catalogue.
Serrano continued to develop his work throughout the 1990s, turning away from photographing objects to portrait work, although still often focusing on challenging subjects and imagery. Portrait series produced at this time include images of the homeless, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and a series of images of dead bodies taken at a morgue. From 1995-96, he photographed several couples and individuals in sexual poses for the series A History of Sex to illustrate the wide-ranging nature of human sexuality and sexual preferences. After the 9/11 attacks in New York Serrano embarked on a wide-ranging series of portraits designed to profile America, which included images of the homeless, boy scouts, Playboy models, and celebrities, including then businessman and now-President Donald J. Trump. His portrait work pushes the viewer to reconsider the meaning of significant topics, such as death (as in The Morgue), good vs. evil (as in Klansmen), sexual norms (as in A History of Sex), and citizenship (as in Residents of New York). Serrano approaches his portrait work objectively, saying "I wouldn't get in bed with the devil, but I would certainly take the devil's picture if he let me. An artist doesn't have judgments against things or people."
Serrano continues to make new work. His most recent major series Sign of the Times (2013) consists of the collected hand-written signs of homeless people in New York, which Serrano purchased (usually for around $20) and exhibited on the walls of the gallery. Now, as an established artist, Serrano is regularly featured in exhibitions around the world, and there have been major retrospectives of his work in New York, Paris, Brussels, and Moscow. Serrano's reputation as a rebel and an iconoclast has also resulted in collaborations with clothing manufacturers, musicians, and filmmakers. In 1996, Serrano supplied the cover artwork for the album Load by the band Metallica. In 2017 the clothing label Supreme released a collection featuring several of his photographic images (including Piss Christ) printed on sweaters and t-shirts.
The Legacy of Andres Serrano
Serrano's role in contemporary art history is unavoidably tied up in the reception of his work and controversy that surrounds it. The issues of propriety and obscenity highlighted by the reaction to Piss Christ have also shaped the current state of arts funding in the United States. The 'decency clause' brought in to moderate the kinds of work able to be funded by the NEA is still in place, having been upheld by the Supreme Court in 1998 during a case brought by performance artist Karen Finley. Despite this, many of the artists originally attacked during these 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s are now well represented in museums and galleries, including Serrano, David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Since the high point of attacks on artists and censorship of their art in the 1990s led by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), art historians, curators, and critics have been keen to point out the precedents for the supposedly obscene work of these artists. This acknowledgment by the art world has not always translated to wider public acceptance however, and there are periodic resurfacings of issues around such work, as in the removal of Wojnarowicz's Fire in My Belly from the Smithsonian following political pressure from the Catholic League in 2010.
Whilst some commentators still consider Serrano's work explicit for the sake of being explicit, his work is widely accepted as being a significant intervention in the representation of religion in contemporary art practices, and as having a strong element of political and social critique.
Later artists have created work that continues his combination of bodily fluids and religious imagery, most notably Chris Ofili, whose work using elephant dung to paint a black Virgin Mary in Holy Virgin Mary (1996) provoked outrage similar to that provoked by Piss Christ. Tim Noble and Sue Webster created Urine Shroud, a piece directly inspired by Piss Christ, in 2011, whilst Terence Koh created Gold Plated Poop using his own feces in 2007 as a reference to both Serrano and Piero Manzoni.
There are also correlations between Serrano's work and that of the Young British Artists movement in the UK, a group which included artists Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. The use of organic and bodily material in photographs and installations was commonplace across the movement, again provoking controversy around the public funding of art. Hirst's installations of submerged icons, such as The Golden Calf (2008) strongly echo Serrano's Immersions of religious images.
Aside from the scandal and controversy around the content of Serrano's work, it also brought about a change in the relationship of major commercial galleries to photography. As he became more established the conceptual nature of his photography was recognized as being as relevant and important as its technique. Alongside contemporaries like Cindy Sherman and Felix Gonzales-Torres, Serrano's work was positioned as Conceptual art rather than relegated to galleries or curatorial departments devoted specifically to photography. This has opened up the curatorial remit of many galleries, allowing many younger artists to engage with photography alongside installation, painting, and other mediums in a conceptual manner.