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Serrano, Andres 1951(?)–

Andres Serrano 1951(?)

Artist, photographer

At a Glance

Substance Abuse

Controversy Provided Lucrative Exposure

Photographed Ku Klux Klan Members


A 30-by-40-inch color photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine placed artist Andres Serrano at the forefront of the ongoing debate on free speech and freedom of artistic expression that rages in America. Serranos infamous photographPiss Christraised the hackles of right-wing groups like the American Family Association and prompted heated debate on federal funding for so-called offensive or indecent art. Protesters have demonstrated at Serranos exhibitions, and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina denounced the Brooklyn native in ARTnews as not an artist but a jerk.

The controversy heightened Serranos fame and made him and his work a touchstone for those who feel that arts primary function is to provoke strong emotion. According to Atlanta Journal correspondent Catherine Fox, Piss Christ has become a political icon, exemplifying not only how demagogues reduce complex issues into simple, polarizing symbols, but also the way they equate Christian values with American values. For his part, the artistwho is admittedly highly ambivalent about his Roman Catholic upbringingsaid to Fox, I think my use of bodily fluids, especially in connection to Christianity, has been a way of trying to personalize and redefine my relationship with Christ.

For all its notoriety, Piss Christ is only one portrait in a body of work that dates back to the 1980s. Early Serrano photographs feature Catholic icons or imagery depicted with blood, milk, and water. Another series features the artists semen, and he has also used butchered cows heads and other body parts. The idea of making pictures based on bodily fluids grew out of Serranos longtime use of animal blood to create his artistic imagery. I felt I could paint with fluids, Serrano told ARTnews. They automatically had content built in.

Objecting to the content of Serranos work, members of the United States Senate used selections of Serranos piecesas well as works of the controversial late photographer Robert Mapplethorpeto lobby for changes in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). On the Senate floor, Alphonse DAmato, a Republican from New York, called Serranos pictures a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity, as reported in ARTnews. Members of the artistic community were quick to respond to such attacks. Atlanta Journal editorial writer Tom

At a Glance

Born c. 1951 in Brooklyn, NY; son of a Honduran father and a Haitian mother; married Julie Ault (an artist). Education: Attended Brooklyn Museum Art School.

Artist and photographer, 1979. Work has appeared at numerous galleries and museums in U.S. and Europe, including the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum, High Museum (Atlanta, GA), Stux Gallery, (New York City), Museum of Contemporary Art (Nimes, France), Robert Klein Gallery (Boston, MA), and BlumHelman Gallery (Santa Monica, CA).

Addresses: c/o Stux Gallery, 163 Mercer St., New York, NY 10012.

Teepen wrote, Mr. Serrano does valid work. His equivocal icons express unresolved feelings about the Hispanic Catholic culture of his youth. His use of body fluids explores and exploits the potency of their connotations.

Andres Serrano was born in Brooklyn, New York. He has been described in the Atlanta Journal as a one-man melting pot for his mixed racial background. As a Haitian, Serranos mother is a Caribbean native of African origin. His father, who is white, was born in Honduras but worked for the United States Merchant Marine. The family located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, an Italian neighborhood. There Serrano attended Catholic school and church on Sundays.

Serrano left the Catholic Church when he was 13, but Catholic imagery and ceremony continued to exert a hold on him. Though he occasionally attended Mass, certain aspects of the faith remained troubling to him. Fox noted that Serrano has spoken of how the church creates a distance between religious figures and worshipers by minimizing the formers human nature. The artist sees his work as one way to bridge the gap between human and divine.

Serrano finally found his niche at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where, in the late 1960s, he seriously began pursuing art. He studied painting and sculpture but was most drawn to photography, in which he used mannequins and surrealistic techniques to create psychologically charged portraits. I found I couldnt paint or sculpt to my satisfaction, but I was still interested in making images, he told the Atlanta Journal. My girlfriend had a camera. I picked it up.

Substance Abuse

For seven yearsinto the early 1980sSerrano was plagued by substance abuse. It was a very difficult time in my life, Serrano told ARTnews. [Finally] I stopped taking drugs altogether. I was 28, and I felt that if I continued on drugs till I was 30 Id never be the artist I wanted to be. That insight helped him to straighten out his life and return to his photography.

Serranos early career was reminiscent of the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and painter Salvador Dali, who also used the symbols and rituals of Roman Catholicism in their work. Fox contended that Serranos portraits are about contradiction and duality, adding that they beckon with a surface beauty, but surprise, or perhaps repel, with their provocative content. The name alone gives away the content of Piss Christ. As Los Angeles Times correspondent Cathy Curtis noted, The casual viewer of [the photograph] would see only a large, golden-yellow crucifix submerged in an atmospheric red liquid shot through with tiny trails of bubbles. The image has a lush, soft-edged romanticism that suggests a larger-than-life version of the surreally golden portrayals of Christ in childrens Bibles. In fact, the work gained little notoriety until it was part of an exhibition at the Southeast Center of Contemporary Art, a North Carolina arts center that receives funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. There it caught the attention of Senator Helms andthrough himthe American Family Association, headed by the Reverend Donald Wildmon.

Helms was particularly incensed that federal funds had been used to support Serranos work. The senator mounted a campaign against Serrano in particularPiss Christ was the first work singled out by right-wing politicians and lobbyists for its offensive contentbut then broadened his attack to include other controversial artwork as well. In the beginning, I was out there alone, and nobody was really paying much attention, Serrano told ARTnews. It was only when it became obvious that it was a bigger thing than just an attack on me that people started to rally around.

Controversy Provided Lucrative Exposure

As Serrano quickly discovered, being branded a jerk by the right wing is not necessarily a calamity; as he continued to produce more provocative worksa tubular crucifix filled with blood (Blood Cross), a wooden cross behind a real heart (Sacred Heart)he found his art in demand at big-city galleries. He was also invited to become a spokesman for artistic freedom, appearing on televisions Face the Nation and at numerous museums and universities throughout the United States. By 1991 Serranos prints were selling for $5,000 to $8,000 apiece. Exhibitions of his 1992 portraits have been held at major galleries on both coasts and in France.

While the American Family Association and a handful of national politicians continued to call for modification of NEA funding laws, art critics began to examine Serranos work seriously. In her assessment of Piss Christ, Los Angeles Times contributor Curtis stated that the tension in the picture lies in Jesuss humanity as a historical figure contrasted with the subsequent distortion he has undergone as a symbol of piety created by the religious establishment. In a startlingly original way, she wrote, Piss Christ conflates the painfully graphic, bloody images of traditional Latin American religious art with the large, vague, gilded images of a televangelist culture.

By 1990, Serrano had moved on to new subjects. In 1991 he displayed the new Nomad series, a group of six-foot Cibachrome portraits of homeless New Yorkers, photographed against a neutral background. The photographer told ARTnews that he was inspired by photographs he had seen of Native Americans, done by Edward S. Curtis. Id always admired Curtiss portraits, Serrano said. Curtis saw Indians as a vanishing raceI wanted to do these [photographs] not as a race but as a class of individuals on the verge of extinction. The portraits Serrano delivered for his series ennoble their destitute subjects, who were paid ten dollars each as a sitting fee. Serrano concluded in ARTnews that this achievement in particular has had special significance for him. Theres not that comfortable distance for me in this work, he said. Ive never been homeless, but Ive been on the outsidepart of that marginal element.

Photographed Ku Klux Klan Members

Another project that proved illuminating for the artist was his series of portraits of Ku Klux Klan [a historically violent racist organization] members, including a retired imperial wizard who donned his full regalia for a shot. Serrano told the Atlanta Constitution that the experience of photographing Klansmen was very strange for them as well as for me. He added that the very act of shooting the photographs helped him to gain an understanding ofif not sympathy forhis subjects points of view. All this talk of white supremacy. he said. I discovered that they are very poor, at the bottom of the barrel. Even the scapegoats need scapegoats. I didnt talk race with them, but a number of them talked race with me.

Though Serrano had moved beyond Piss Christ, debate over that work continued. In a 1992 presidential campaign speech in Georgia, Republican contender Patrick Buchanan told an assembly of Georgia state representatives that NEA-funded artists intentionally set out to injure, wound, offend and insult Americans of traditional values, Christians, and conservatives, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Buchanan added: I dont care what they do in their garrets with their precious bodily fluids and their bullwhips [a reference to a Mapplethorpe photograph], but I tell you when Im president we wont be paying for it with American tax dollars. Buchanans remarks, however, were met with a decided lack of enthusiasm; as Serrano himself discovered, many who do not support other conservative issues do not support restructuring the NEA either. Georgia state senator Sallie Newbill, the Republican minority leader, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Buchanan was simply trying to create a demand for his brand of politics, venturing, I think it will backfire.

Controversy will undoubtedly follow Serrano for some time to come; the artist admits that his favorite Ku Klux Klan portraitof a man in a red-and-white robehas something spiritual about it. He looks almost like a bishop, Serrano told the Atlanta Constitution. In 1992, Serrano was living with his wife in a Brooklyn apartment that amply illustrated his fixation on Catholic imagery and surrealist technique. He was working in a studio decorated with a human brain preserved in a bottle. Serrano steadfastly maintains that his work is meant to be provocative only in the cerebral senseit is meant to provoke thought and contends that it is a reflection of his ongoing exploration of himself.


Art in America, November 1989; April 1990.

ARTnews, September 1991.

Atlanta Constitution, October 8, 1990.

Atlanta Journal, April 22,1990; April 29,1990; October 7, 1990.

Insight, July 17, 1989.

Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1990; May 24, 1991.

New York Times, August 4, 1991.

Philadelphia Inquirer, February 29, 1992.

Anne Janette Johnson

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