I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about juxtaposition in New York City. Just by being here, you've placed yourself in a situation where anything can happen. New York City is a place that embodies the word juxtaposition; the side by side placement of different forms, culture and experience.

As I crossed the Manhattan Bridge last Sunday afternoon, to finish my interview with Andres Serrano, I recalled that conversation, and realized I was living New York City at that very moment and also, subscribing to what Andres Serrano believes his art represents: mixing the expected with the unexpected.

I, the product of Canadian suburbia, was crossing the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn to interview Andres Serrano; part Cuban, part Honduran, a man who Jesse Helm called a jerk, who was denounced in Congress for immersing a crucifix in urine, who added dignity to fetishism, who has photographed death up-close and made it mesmerizing.

I loved his candor, his charm and his ease. I didn't think twice about the stuffed Siamese cat he'd bought in Paris, the human brains floating in jars atop 15th century pedestals, or the dark gothic furniture and red velvet that surrounded me. I was focused on the twinkle in Andres’ eye, and how he, himself, was not the man I had expected.

IM: Do you think art should provoke or present ideas?
AS: Why can't it do both, you know? I'm always amused when people ask is it sacred or profane? Is it good or bad? Is it art or pornography? My feeling is, why can't it be both?
IM: Is that how Piss Christ came about?
AS: I'm glad you said Piss Christ, you know some people say The Piss Christ, and it's not The Piss Christ. Piss Christ is just one of the fluid pictures that came at a time when I was investigating two different directions in my work. I was involved with bodily fluids; using them as colors, and making them look like abstract paintings. Then I decided to make some sort of representational image with the fluid. I made it a religious one because before I got involved with the fluids, I was actually doing religious images. Not only was the art not intended to be provocative, you know, I didn't think anybody cared. At the time, I barely had an audience.
IM: What did you think about the outrage it created?
AS: It's a great shock to me to find myself being denounced in Congress, as a result of Piss Christ. I never thought it would go anywhere. And, in fact, that image had existed for a full year before the American Family Association ("AFA") picked up on it. They mounted this huge campaign against Piss Christ and me. By their own accounts, they sent out about 180,000 letters asking people to write to Congress and the Senate to complain about this image, and about the NEA's involvement. Had it not been for the AFA, I don't think that Piss Christ would have had this sort of reaction.
IM: How well did Piss Christ sell?
AS: Piss Christ was the first of my images to sell out. And at the time, there were four large editions and ten small ones. Now they're reduced. Ever since I joined Paula Cooper Gallery, the editions are three large and seven small. So there are four people out there who own four big ones and ten people who own ten little ones.

IM: Can I get one?
AS: You can, for about $100,000.

IM: Did your History of Sex series attempt to shed a little light on the darkness that you referred to which you believe lies beneath the "normal"?

[Hear Andres' answer in his own voice]
AS: Before I began the sex pictures, I actually thought that I wanted to refer not only to a history of sex, but a history of painting and art, as well... Basically, the sexual images were conceived as a tableau of sexually explicit ideas and images. They were also meant to walk the line between art and pornography. I find that sometimes when we think of erotic photography, people have preconceived ideas about nudes.

IM: Were you thinking of your audience?
AS: One of the things that I was aware of, not that I was trying to be politically correct, but I was aware that an image like The Fisting, which actually came about while I was in Amsterdam and was exposed to many different clubs and people... I became aware of fisting as a homosexual practice. But I didn't want that image to be a gay image necessarily, and I wanted to do a fisting between a man and a woman. I felt that for me to have a man fist a woman would upset some people. And so I did the reverse. I did an image where a woman is fisting a man...
IM: Is that why you didn’t depict a rape or forced sex between a man and a woman?
AS: The closest thing I came to male dominance was Helena’s picture, which was a photograph of a large, tall man with a big dick hovering over this very small woman. She’s actually a dwarf... There are a lot of images I didn’t get to do... Actually, I'm thinking about doing a part 2 some day.
IM: What would the part 2 include?
AS: Two women... among other things.

IM: When did you become interested in art?
AS: When I was about 11 or 12, I started going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that's really my first adventure in art. And then when I was about 15 I dropped out of school, and decided at that point that I wanted to be an artist. At 17, I went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School.

IM: For photography?
AS: Painting. Always painting. In fact, in art school I studied painting and sculpture. I never studied photography. And, in fact, I don't print. But my early influences are people like Picasso, Marcel Duchamps, the Impressionists, the Cubists, painters. After 3 years of art school I decided I couldn't paint. So I started taking photographs.
IM: What role does religion have in your life?
AS: I never thought about my religious upbringing until I became an artist and then I started to explore it. Now, I'm at a point where I do frequent churches, particularly in Europe because I'm attracted to the symbols of the church and to the objects in churches. I collect religious furniture or things that come from churches... I feel an affinity with the church, but I also reject the church... or the religious dogma. But I like the aesthetics of the church.
IM: What are you working on now?
AS: I've started doing celebrity portraits for this Japanese magazine called Cut. I've been photographing people like Marilyn Manson, Alec Baldwin, Rupaul, Spike Lee, Sandra Bernhardt, I'm supposed to have a meeting with Ivana Trump next week. So it's an interesting mix of people that I'm trying to photograph. I've been very fortunate that I've been able to find an audience.
IM: What are you thinking of doing in the future?
AS: ...I don't think I covered all the bases in the History of Sex. Also, I'm basically drawn to very basic things ...life, death ...good and evil, the sacred and the profane and sex figures in there somewhere.
IM: In exposing those ideas through your work, what does it do for you?
AS: Well, I suppose it helps me to sort out my own demons and society’s as well. One of the descriptions of my work that I like the best was once in a review where I was referred to as "the art world’s equivalent of a rock band that puts out a concept album every two or three years."
In tracking the history of Andres Serrano, we go from desecrating religious icons to portraits of modern ones, from art to editorial, from the floors of congress to worldwide fame. No longer the silent observer, but part of the closely observed. What’s next? He'll wait for the impulse. Andres Serrano
is one of the featured
artists in

this month.


Article by:

Nathalie Wechsler


Andres Serrano's

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