Andres Serrano, seated in a short wooden chair at the end of a long table at his apartment-studio near New York’s Union Square—in the midst of churchly crucifixes, statues of saints, a bishop’s throne, and a balcony that could pass for a choir loft—conceded that, given the chance, he would photograph the devil. “I wouldn’t get in bed with the devil,” he clarified, “but I would certainly take the devil’s picture if he let me. An artist doesn’t have judgments against things or people.”
I had asked if he felt some of his work glorified evil—for instance, a collection of portraits of Ku Klux Klansmen from 1990 or his series titled “Torture,” created in 2015 and currently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. After images of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, sent shockwaves throughout the country this summer, Serrano’s portraits could be said to have taken on a different valence, with Klansmen in their full uniforms presented in the deep hues, dramatic shadows, and grand scale of Old Master portraits.
In a present era marked by escalating racial discord as well as governmental distaste for the arts and talk of defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, Serrano’s work is newly relevant—perhaps one reason why Shainman is now giving him a full-scale New York solo show, his first in nearly ten years. After all, it was Serrano’s 1987 work Piss Christ—a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine—that sparked the Culture Wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and that was later used to justify curtailing the NEA’s budget.
Shainman said that, while installing an exhibition of Serrano’s work at his art center and exhibition space known as the School in upstate New York, he realized he felt the artist’s work had a new sense of importance. That show, a kind of mini-retrospective, included the series “Objects of Desire” (from 1992, with aestheticized close-ups of guns) and “America” (from 2001–04, featuring portraits of more than 100 Americans made in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11) as well as examples of “Torture,” which built on an assignment that Serrano received from the New York Times Magazine in 2005 to accompany an article on the gruesome torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The install coincided with the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency and, seeing Serrano’s portrait of Trump alongside works from “Torture,” Shainman said he imagined the artist’s subject matter would resonate somehow with the new administration’s agenda. “I thought, Oh my God, Andres again is so apropos for what we’re looking at today,” he said.
Serrano completed the “Torture” series over a three-month period in 2015, as a commission from the London-based arts organization a/political. The work, on view in New York through November 4, consists of two parts: reenactments of torture and slick shots of torture tools (shackles, bloodied gloves, an iron “fool’s mask”) shot in France, and then images of some of the Hooded Men, a group subjected in the ’70s to torture by the British Army in Northern Ireland—including the forced wearing of covers over their heads. In Serrano’s pictures, the men revisited their past and donned hoods for their portraits, which Serrano photographed in Belfast. The other works in the series include images of various forms of torture, with figures in classicized poses that harken back to Serrano’s past mining of Christian iconography.
“I think things change, but they don’t really,” Serrano told me. “In the case of my work, it has a life well after I’ve done it. Torture was never ‘in’ and it was never ‘out.’ It’s always with us. It’s timely—but it was timely when I made it and it’ll be timely five years from now.”
As for the historical significance of his 30-year-old Piss Christ, Serrano dismissed the aura of sensationalism that surrounded it in the ’80s and called it “a devout work of a Christian artist” with links back to the likes of Caravaggio and Bosch. “Here, in the States, I’m known as ‘controversial artist Andres Serrano, creator of Piss Christ,’ ” he said, noting that in Europe his work is often positioned in a broader art-historical context. “I feel an affinity with many religious artists of the past. You have to see my work in that context. At the same time, I’m a contemporary artist. Contemporary artists often use unorthodox materials and ideas in their work.”
Contemporary artists are also not immune to misinterpretation. “People wanted to interpret it according to their agenda,” Serrano said of his most infamous photograph. “It was seen as an attack on Christian values, on Christ, and it’s nothing further from the truth.” He continued on the matter of faith, gesturing around his home, which has the air of a parochial medieval church: “Look around—how can you say I’m not Christian?”
The notoriety of Piss Christ and some of his other works will likely continue to follow him, but Serrano said he has reached a state of reconciliation. “People expect me to be controversial, and it’s a hard act to follow,” he said. “If all I ever did was controversial work, it wouldn’t be true to myself. At the same time, I would love to take pictures of children or flowers or kittens or puppies—but they wouldn’t be real ‘Serranos.’ People have their own idea as to what Serranos are.”