Which are sexier—images or ideas? That question is central to Art—A Sex Book (Thames & Hudson), a recently published compendium of provocative images put together by filmmaker and artist John Waters in collaboration with Bruce Hainley, a writer and independent curator. “Contemporary art is sex,” Waters says at the outset. “Making art is a sexy occupation,” Hainley agrees, though the authors let ideas dominate their conversation. If some of their illustrations border on the pornographic, Waters and Hainley make it plain that they consider eroticism to be subject matter in recent art and not necessarily its content.
With the Internet and cable TV making pornography widely available on an anytime-of-day basis, it was probably inevitable that artists would find their own ways to channel it into their work and that galleries would show the results. Consider the New York exhibition season just past, most notable not for nudity, which now sells tickets only on Broadway, but for the number of phalluses in plain view.
At Lehmann Maupin, for example, German fashion photographer Juergen Teller showed a number of large-format family pictures in which he appeared completely and unattractively starkers. Giving an appreciative nod to Surrealist sex games, independent curator Bob Nickas designed a ribald group exhibition for Team Gallery as a “frisky” riposte to the politics of George W. Bush. (It included, along with romantic images by such transgressive heroes as Jack Smith and Larry Clark, Michael Meads’s photographic triptych of a man taking his pleasure with a pumpkin.) And the most commanding image in Adam Fuss’s show at Cheim & Read was his photogram of a full-length male nude, seen in profile, with his manhood in full salute.
At Artemis•Greenberg Van Doren, photographer Katy Grannan included two male nudes in her recent group of color portraits, one featuring a very prominent erection, while the other implied an invitation to excite one. In one of Eric Fischl’s staged photographs at Mary Boone, an oblique narrative of a middle-aged couple at home, alone, the woman stays under wraps; the man lets it all hang out. And this month, in “From Sweet to Steamy: The Erotic Art of Joe Brainard,” the Tibor de Nagy Gallery pointedly gets down to cases as well. But the female nude ruled the roost.
It’s not that we haven’t seen kinky images in contemporary art before. We have, and plenty of them, from those of Robert Mapplethorpe clowning with a bullwhip in his anus to John O’Reilly’s sex-with-Jesus photocollages to Sally Mann’s sensual portraits of her children, Amy Adler’s nothing-to-hide “centerfold” self-portraits, and Kara Walker’s sexually driven master-slave silhouettes. But there does seem to have been a shift in emphasis in recent years, particularly in regard to hard-core male sexuality.
Was not My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), a monumental, sperm-tossing, fiberglass sculpture by Takashi Murakami, a rejoinder to Paul McCarthy’s Spaghetti Man(1995), with its long, fleshy garden hose of a penis? Donald Moffett’s classically, almost clinically, detailed drawings of male genitals might once have been filed under “homoerotica.”
But that was before. Today Moffett’s drawings appear at New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery; Cologne’s Jablonka Galerie has Andy Warhol’s “Sex Parts and Torso” on view (through the 31st of this month); and the French postcardlike pictures that newcomer Ion Birch supplied for “The Young Penis,” his show at Brooklyn’s Bellwether Gallery last year, read merely as diaristic, front-of-the-house amusement.
Until recently, says Carroll Dunham, in whose paintings the penis has been a recurring motif for years, “male sexuality has been one of the least represented things in our culture—except in pornography. Historically, painters were men getting women to take off their clothes to paint them. But I see a phallus as part of who I am, and I have a right to make it as an image. Why weren’t they interested in their own bodies?”
He is clearly not the only one asking. A year ago, Vince Aletti, the Village Voiceart editor who is also a photography collector, curator, and critic, organized a show of nudes, male and female, for Robert Mann Gallery. “I was determined to deal with total nudity,” Aletti says, “and I remember a number of men being put off by it.” On the other hand, he recalled, so many women told him how glad they were to see penises on the wall that he is considering a “penis show” now.
“Male nudity upsets people,” says Harry Philbrick, director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, who selected the Birch pieces for “Erotic Drawing,” the exhibition reopening the Aldrich in May. “This show will directly address that issue,” he says. It will also travel to DiverseWorks in Houston and will give equal time to both sexes.
In his classic 1983 study, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, art historian Leo Steinberg demonstrated that from the 13th to the 16th century, the genitals of the newly humanized Christ figure were fair game for Western artists who were as devoted to realism as to their faith. As Klaus Kertess, adjunct curator of contemporary art at Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, explains, “Except for Michelangelo’s David, or art in India or Pompeii, if you saw a penis, it was almost always of a dead warrior. It was not erect. In the Renaissance, you had little Christ children with hard-ons, but you almost never saw a male nude after that.”
Not until now. Some believe feminism did the trick. “I think women really took back the night in their freedom to use their own bodies,” says Richard Flood, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “Sarah Lucas is doing truly confrontational stuff,” he says, “and I’m thrilled that a woman is turning it back against the male viewer. When she really hits it, it’s epic.”
But pitfalls remain for women who take on sexually charged material. “One of the most annoying reviews I ever had was from a woman who accused me of pandering to the male viewer,” says Cecily Brown, who moved to New York from London in 1994 and has consistently elicited images of sexually omnivorous figures, male and female, from expressionist storms of paint. “Depicting sex is a chance to depict something everyday and something extraordinary at the same time,” she says. “It has to do with the question of how you paint flesh and get figures to move across a canvas, but I am also interested in how far you can go without it becoming porn.”
Marilyn Minter knows only too well how explicit imagery can overwhelm a work of art. In 1989 she exhibited suggestive paintings of vegetables as “Food Porn,” and it led her into more hard-core imagery. “I was so naïve,” she says. “I wanted to use images from porn magazines that were compelling, but I went too far. I thought of myself as capturing these images from a degraded past, making them mine. But my friends would come and berate me. I had anonymous phone calls and threatening letters. ‘Nobody has politically correct fantasies,’ I said. But after that, I lost my confidence. And I didn’t make anything interesting for a long while.”
director of the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, points out, “When an artist turns to printed imagery from pornographic sources, you have to look not at the sources but at the art that is created. The sources are just part of the palette. They are not the entire subject.”
Artists have covered a lot of ground since Vito Acconci videotaped the monologue he performed in a New York gallery while masturbating under a gangplank (Seedbed, 1972), Carolee Schneemann read from a folded paper she drew from her vagina (Interior Scroll, 1975), and Lynda Benglis caused a rancorous split among the editors of Artforum, in 1974, by publishing an ad in which she appeared nude and gripping a comically large dildo.
A new generation will be able to see the Benglis ad this spring, when Robin Kahn’s group exhibition “Get Off: The Art of Stimulation” introduces the work of about a dozen contemporary artists, including Tom Otterness, Jane Dickson, and Karim Rashid, to New York’s Museum of Sex and brings along Kirby Gookin’s archive of historical ephemera. “The thing about sex is that it’s not all naughty and dark,” says Kahn. “You can do a show about intimacy, and it can also be uplifting.”
Aletti offers another perspective. “There isn’t enough real raunchiness in art,” he says. He speaks with enthusiasm about the computer-manipulated images that German artist Thomas Ruff downloaded from pornographic Web sites and exhibited in 2000 as Nudes. “I like that it’s real and that Ruff hasn’t entirely masked his sources,” Aletti explains. “He went for the nastiness, but I think he is trying to explore something that’s out there and find a way to bring it back to us.”
Jake and Dinos Chapman are no slouches when it comes to nasty. The brothers made headlines last October, when the Tate Britain opened its 2003 Turner Prize exhibition. It included the Chapmans’ Death, a bronze cast of two inflatable sex dolls caught in the act of fellatio. According to the Guardian, many first-day visitors ignored it, though one elderly woman was heard to exclaim, “Oh, dear!”
Some works of art, like Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Courbet’s Origin of the World, never lose their ability to arouse, repel, or provoke debate. Cindy Sherman’s “Sex Pictures” of degraded mannequins from 1992 and Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings of masturbating Kewpies from 1995 rank high among contemporary works that still rattle, and Jeff Koons sparked lasting controversy with his 1991 exhibition “Made in Heaven,” a group of kitschy silk-screen-on-canvas photographs and related objects that lifted the veil on his sex life with his then-wife, the Italian porn star who goes by the name La Ciccolina. But perhaps no work by a contemporary artist has retained the startling power of Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio,” published in 1978. Though treated with the artist’s signature classicism, its compositions depict men in leather and chains acting out sexual activities that were then more familiar to the backrooms of after-hours bars than in the provinces of art.
McCarthy underscores his visceral and violent video installations with equal measures of self-loathing and satire, as in Bossy Burger (1991), in which the artist is a chef in an Alfred E. Neuman mask who goes berserk on the set of a TV cooking show. In The Garden(1992), his animatronic, father-and-son puppets have unceasing sex with objects in nature.
“New art is always shocking,” says Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and cocurator of a McCarthy retrospective in 2000, “because you don’t know what you’re looking at. And that is the case with Paul McCarthy. If you had to say something was shocking about his work, it would not be the sex or the violence. It would be the threshold between sanity and insanity. It’s about boundaries being permeated and transgressed. It makes people nervous when there aren’t any boundaries.”
The previously unpublished photographs that Jeff Burton contributed to the Waters and Hainley book are a case in point. Like the casually allusive pictures in his 2001 book, Dreamland, Burton shot these, from his knees, on porno-movie sets in Hollywood and gave the compositions the detail of a classic nature morte. “One of the jobs of an artist is to be careful where to draw lines,” Burton says. “Boundaries are made for the artist to test.”
Kiki Seror, a New York artist who was featured in both SITE Santa Fe and the International Center of Photography Triennial last year, has produced a series of lightbox images and digital animations that transform typewritten conversations and photographs from Internet sex rooms into work resembling a lipstick-pink cross between a negligee, a tattoo, and human goo. Says Hainley, “I don’t believe there is an easy distinction between art and porn in all cases. But,” he adds, “I find everything I think about sexy because thinking is sexy.”
Waters concurs. “The fact that Richard Prince and Jeff Burton have used porn elements to make you look at porn in a different way makes the works art to me. There is never any irony in porn. People don’t want it. Even artists don’t want it.”
But for portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who shows with Mary Boone, the sex industry is a whole new frontier. “I was looking for a group that would be interesting to shoot nude,” says Greenfield-Sanders of the work he is currently completing for an exhibition and book. He decided on porn stars. Following the example of Goya’s naked and clothed Majas, the photographer’s 30 subjects, men and women of different generations, posed both in their street clothes and nude, in the same position for each. “It’s complicated,” he admits. “There are only a finite number of positions that a body can assume. I asked one porn star what her best angle was and she said, ‘With my ankles over my head.’”
Unlike even the most disturbing art, pornography characteristically lacks emotional content and succeeds by promoting only one idea. Still, the distinction may best be left in the eye of the beholder. As Philbrick says, “You know it when you see it.”
Take the untitled 1964 work by Richard Artschwager that appears in Art—A Sex Book. Painted on the bristly Celotex that is his signature material, it shows the back of a scantily clad woman who is seated on a man’s lap and looking over her shoulder at the viewer. The only part of the man that is visible is the part that is penetrating the woman.
“I wanted to do an explicit painting as if it were a portrait,” says the 80-year-old Artschwager, and stay “two steps ahead of the sheriff.” At the time, he says, “I was trying to make the painting as formal as possible, forgetting that it was porn and painting it as if it weren’t. But I did it to contribute something that wasn’t there before, either in sexy pictures or portrait painting. Originality is at a premium, so what is there left to do?” Artschwager concludes.
“I feel that we have a situation now where people are free to express themselves any way they want, without it being shocking or revolutionary,” says New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who has sponsored a number of provocative exhibitions, such as that of Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik, who lived in a cage at Deitch Projects, naked, for three weeks, in 1997, as a savage, barking dog. “It’s not that I look for transgressive work,” Deitch insists. “What I look for is the expansion of the definition of what art is and what art can be. Sometimes it involves sexual imagery.”
Amer, an Egyptian painter whom Deitch represents, embroiders stretched canvases and large linen boxes with images of sexually active women. “In 1988,” she says, “I saw a magazine for veiled women and how to make your own clothes, and that is when I started to use sewing as my medium. I was doing women at work, and at home, but I was bored with this. I wanted an image that would be totally surprising with the medium, so I used pornography.”
She is referring to an eleventh-century erotic text called The Encyclopedia of Pleasure, passages from which she has sewn onto canvas and pale linen cubes. “It’s a book of poetry that is also a medical text,” she says. “It teaches you how to get pleasure. It says that to be a better Muslim, you need to be a better human being, and to do that, you need to be a better sexual being. Because I come from a repressive culture, its mix of sexuality with spirituality is extremely self-healing.” While Amer is hardly alone in turning to pornography for source material, she may be the first to suggest that the bodies pictured in porn magazines have become the artist’s life models of today. “The images are totally unrealistic,” Amer says. “But so erotic.”
Carl Fudge also relies on historical material—erotic Japanese prints of the 17th and 18th centuries—but he so completely transforms them into densely patterned, abstract paintings that his sources are undetectable. “The pornography I use was originally kept private rather than displayed as art,” he says, “and I try to play with that—keep the sexual imagery hidden in plain sight. There’s a sense of mischief involved with doing something private in public.”
Something of the same impulse prompted Reagan Louie to photograph prostitutes at work in China, Japan, Thailand, Southeast Asia, and Korea and to collect them in a book, Orientalia: Sex in Asia; until last month, many of the photographs were on exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where controversy among, first, the staff and then, the public, generated enough remarks, some inflammatory, to fill at least four comment books. For photography curator Sandra Phillips, such debate goes with the territory. “We’ve had Nan Goldin,” she says. “We’ve got Diane Arbus now. And we have an 1870 photo from China by William Saunders in the permanent collection, an image of an unbound foot that quite frankly is the most obscene picture we have on view.”
Louie chose the Asian sex industry for his subject because, he says, “it was more visual and theatrical than everyday life. But,” he adds, “the job of the artist is to look at everything. We can’t turn away. To me, that may be the most important function of the artist—to discover, to make life more complicated, to describe the living, breathing specificity of human life. Where else in the culture can one do that?”
Linda Yablonsky is the author of the novel The Story of Junk and a contributing editor of ARTnews.