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When Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was first exhibited in 1989 it was immediately recognized as a boldly transgressive work of art that was clearly intended by the artist to provoke controversy, but it was also evident that the photograph is suffused with radiant luminescence that belies its content. Its controversial aspect culminated when Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato, strongly supported by Jesse Helms, on the floor of the United States Senate, angrily denounced the work and tore in two a reproduction of the image during a debate about the nature of the work that the National Endowment for the Arts was underwriting. (The Endowment had sponsored an exhibition that included this work, which had then received a prize.) Although ever since then Piss Christ has remained a touchstone in the debate about governmental censorship and artistic freedom of expression it has continued to be exhibited and interpreted, whether as sacrilegious, religious, or rarely, as entirely apart from religion and simply as an aesthetic object in and of itself.
Serrano, who is half Afro-Cuban and half Honduran, was born in New York in 1950 and was raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. He studied art at the Brooklyn Museum Art School from 1967 to 1969. He began to exhibit work in the United States in 1985 and has steadily done so nationally and internationally ever since.
From the beginning of his career Serrano incorporated religious imagery into his work, including a 1984 picture titled Heaven and Hell that includes two half-length figures, a bloodied, nude woman with her arms tied over her head and a man in cardinal’s robes, and a 1985 Pieta where the place of Christ in the lap of the Virgin Mary has been taken by an enormous dead carp.
In 1987 Serrano made photographs he called “Fluid Abstractions” that were single monochromatic squares of color—one yellow, titled Piss; one red, titled Blood; and one work with two squares, one white, one red, titled Milk, Blood. As these bodily fluids are shown in and of themselves, they are isolated from any cultural context. However they lead directly to Piss Christ in which by adding a crucifix a startling, somewhat abstract, but highly symbolic context came into being.
To make this image Serrano submerged a small wood and plastic crucifix in a plexiglas container that he had filled with his own urine, which he had collected over time, and to which he later added blood. He angled his camera so that no part of the set-up was visible and carefully lit his composition so that fluid that had beaded on the surface of the container is visible. These bubbles imply motion and enliven the image. From the upper right a soft glow emanates from an unseen source just strong enough to show the upper sections of the cross and the body suspended from it surrounded by a luxuriant warmth of color. The relatively simple composition, lush color, and glossy finish of Piss Christ are characteristics of all of Serrano’s work.
- Gordon Baldwin: July, 2007