By ERIK LA PRADE, April 2023
Since his 1988 exhibition, Piss Deities, at the Greenberg Wilson Gallery, in which the photograph Piss Christ was first exhibited, the artist/photographer Andres Serrano has created a range of images that have challenged aesthetic, religious and moral ideals concerning “beauty." Through his “transgressive” photographs, including his portrayal of Christ on the cross in piss/blood; the interaction of bodies in sexually intimate positions in The History of Sex series; portraits of The Grand Dragon leader of the Klan; the homeless; and incarcerated and tortured inmates in his series Prisoners; Serrano has pushed our definitions of, and assumptions about, art, and questioned the way we judge its symbolism within our personal and social value system(s) regarding good and/or bad “taste." The artist generously spoke with me about a number of art-related topics and ideas, reflecting on some of his past works and his present interests.
Eric La Prade: I get the impression you are always working on a project.
Andres Serrano: I am in a way. I mean, there are times when I go long periods without doing anything, but I am still thinking. Sometimes I’m just formulating ideas or taking pictures. I’m doing something. I may not be working on my own work, but something comes up. Actually, I am doing my own work. Here’s the thing, I studied painting and sculpture at The Brooklyn Museum Art School, in 1968/69, when I was eighteen. But after art school, I realized I couldn’t really paint or sculpt. My girlfriend at the time had a camera, so I started taking pictures. And I decided early on I would limit my art process to taking pictures. But not as a photographer; as an artist. I’ve spent all these decades taking photographs. Last year, for the first time, I started making objects and paintings. So, I’ve been doing that lately. It’s unusual for me in that it’s not photographs. But, I want to gather up a body of work before I show it to anybody. It’s another side of me, but I’m still the same artist.
ELP: I am thinking of Man Ray. His central art form was photography but he also painted and created objects.
AS: Yes. All the arts are related, more so now than ever. A lot of artists have worked between painting and objects but you can still see the thread that ties it together. Yet, it’s still the same artist.
ELP: It has their imprint. When did you first encounter Duchamp’s work?
AS: I think when I dropped out of high school. I was about sixteen. About a year earlier, when I was fifteen, I discovered Bob Dylan’s work, songs. So the two biggest influences have been Duchamp and Dylan. Duchamp taught me that anything goes and Dylan taught me how to be another kind of artist, where words mattered more than images. I remember how I discovered Dylan’s work; it was through Columbia records. At the time, they had a promo where you could pay one penny and get twelve albums. I paid a penny and got twelve albums and there was his very first one in the mix. As far as what I discovered in Duchamp’s work, I really don’t know. I would think it was around the age of sixteen.
ELP: What is your feeling about Duchamp’s work now?
AS: Duchamp is still untouchable. Meaning . . .
ELP: I mean for yourself.
AS: Duchamp opened up a can of worms; a Pandora’s Box, and after that it was hard to put things back into the box. So, Duchamp is the gift that continues to give.
ELP: There are no end of books, talks and arguments about it. Did you start to experiment to figure out what he was doing? To explore for yourself?
AS: Both. Everything for me has always been exploration and then experimentation. Meaning, I’m exploring things that are of interest to me, but I’m also experimenting or finding new ways of connecting to a subject through my work that I haven’t thought of before.
ELP: Do you find that’s true for your “commercial” work?
AS: Putting quotes around the word commercial is very important because magazine work pays absolutely nothing. After expenses, the assistant makes more money than I do. But, I love taking pictures for the New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine. I recently did a shoot of fighting cocks for The New York Magazine, and I very much enjoyed that because these are great venues. The thing about these magazines is when they ask a person like myself, they ask artists – they ask photographers and illustrators –they ask artists whose work they know – and they want you to illustrate their story in your own style. They know exactly what they are doing when they look for a creative talent.
ELP: It gives their publication recognition and maybe wider circulation.
AS: They also have excellent picture editors and graphic designers who know how to use images in an amazing way.
ELP: During one of your high school visits to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, you mentioned you saw religious iconography. What did those images give you?
AS: I think when I was looking at the works by Raphael or . . .
ELP: Salvador Rosa?
AS: Yeah. I remember going to The Met, and at the time Rembrandt’s picture Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer was the most expensive painting in the world at two and a half million dollars. So that’s how far back it goes. But when I looked at these old master paintings, I really didn’t think of them in terms of religion, I just thought they were amazing pictures. It just so happened that most, if not all, the great art, and great artists, before the seventeenth century, were religious. They were religious painters, and who knows if they were religious themselves.
ELP: I like the early Italian painters like Giovanni di Paolo, and Cimabue. They were painting religious scenes; angels, saints and devils, and church commissions were where the money was, but I’ve always wondered if they personally believed in these things.
AS: I don’t know if they believed in it. Who knows. I think Michelangelo was religious but he had a lot of fights with popes. When you’re an artist, you’re conflicted. You’re fighting with people. You’re fighting with your peers. Even if you don’t confront them directly, you’re still competing with them. You’re fighting with yourself; you’re fighting with finances. This idea of the struggling artist we’ve seen throughout history – and the bigger the artist the more they struggle. There’s always a turmoil, a conflict, a contradiction, and that’s part of being an artist; they are not exactly well-formed, conventional human beings.
ELP: There is also the self-doubt and the psychological problems that can rise up.
AS: Absolutely. And I think the greatest artists are the biggest self-doubters. I think toward the end of his life, Da Vinci said he didn’t do enough or he could have done more; it wasn’t enough.
ELP: Or, it wasn’t good enough.
AS: Michelangelo, who did amazing paintings, felt he was a better sculptor than a painter.
ELP: Going back to your earlier days; when you lived in the East Village, did it challenge your faith? I mean, being so close to the drug scene and the street life.
AS: No. I mean, my dreams have never been challenged by anything, including adversity. Sometimes you are so low in so many ways and you don’t know how to get out of it. And sometimes you have to ask God for direction or help. But, a lot of times you don’t because you feel like it’s selfish to ask God to help you out; at the same time there are more people more needy than you. But, at the same time, I never saw a conflict between drugs and religion. But, I have to tell you, when I hit rock bottom in the seventies, during my drug-fueled years in the East Village, I went to a church over on Fourteenth Street and First Ave. I stopped in but I didn’t know what I was asking for, but I asked God to help me. Not long after that, I moved out of the East Village, I got on a Methadone program and I started weaning myself off drugs. It took a long time. But, I do remember going to church and asking for help and help came in the form of change. I changed my life.
ELP: Was it a slow change or a sudden insight?
AS: The thing is: Methadone was the worst drug I ever took. It was worse than heroin. Worse than anything else. So, it took a long time to get off Methadone. Going from one hundred milligrams to five milligrams to two milligrams took, like, three years. Methadone was more addictive than heroin and harder to get off of. Finally, when I was free of Methadone, I spent months going out to clubs at night because I could not sleep at night. Withdrawal from Methadone and not being able to sleep at night was a big problem for me then. You have an excess of energy and you don’t know what to do with it. So, I started going out at night.
ELP: When you lived in the East Village, were there any artists or musicians that had an influence on you?
AS: No. I didn’t know anybody. When I was on drugs, I didn’t have a camera. A friend of mine referred to me as an artist. I said, “Michael, don’t call me an artist; I’m not an artist now.” In that period, I couldn’t handle both, so I didn’t want to mix the two. When I came off being a drug addict, that’s when I could handle being an artist.
ELP: Changing your focus, certainly.
AS: I had to give it my all. In order for me to reinvent myself and become an artist, I had to give up the drug life and give it my all to becoming an artist. That’s the reason I got off drugs. I was twenty-eight and on a Methadone program. I thought, “In two years, if I’m still on drugs, I’ll never be able to go back to being who I think I’m supposed to be.” It was a biological clock ticking inside of me, saying by the age of thirty you better be off drugs and into a new lifestyle because that’s the only way for you to go forward.
ELP: Did you start using photography as your art form in the early eighties?
AS: After art school in 1969/1970, I started taking photos with Milly’s camera; black and white, then color. But, by the time I hit twenty-one, now I’m getting into drugs. That’s when I stopped taking photographs. Then in 1980, I met Julie Ault, who was a member of a group called GROUP MATERIAL [that] she and Tim Rollins had just started with a bunch of people. I started getting back into making art, having a studio, taking pictures.
ELP: What did it mean when you encountered the GROUP MATERIAL artists? Did you get some insight into using and experimenting with materials?
AS: GROUP MATERIAL was doing installations and addressing social themes like AIDS, politically active inequality. I was not influenced by anything they were doing because they were a collective using other artists’ work and addressing social issues. Plus, creating installations with other artists’ works, and incorporating household products if they felt they wanted to include those into the exhibitions. The only thing was, I was living in a parallel world, meaning I was doing my thing. So I was not following what they were doing, except Julie might tell me about a group meeting. But I went to their openings, and from time to time, the group would invite me to participate by (me) giving them one of my works for the installation. I knew what they were doing but it had nothing to do with what I was doing. Their focus was more political, more social, and more cultural. Mine was very much [more] personal.
ELP: You mention they were using common objects. Is it possible some of the religious objects you were working with might have been common to people who were religiously minded?
AS: I didn’t know anybody - and I still don’t know anyone - who is religiously minded, particularly Christian. I am the kind of Christian who doesn’t talk about Christianity; I don’t talk about God. So, it doesn’t enter into the picture in terms of conversation. But, yes, I did recognize at some point that I was drawn to religious themes and to Christ in my work. It was interesting to me that it was something I had not thought about, but I saw it manifesting itself in my work. Ernest Hemingway said, “Write what you know.” Which to me means make it personal or make it something of interest or of value to you.
ELP: Your work confronts a person in the context of an extreme iconography. Not all the time, but generally. Do you think viewers are also confronted with their fantasies by this iconography?
AS: Now more than ever, everything is subjective, even the truth. Facts can be altered and questioned and turned around. Sometimes people give you answers and you don’t even know what they believe or what they’re trying to say. It seems they are just trying to confuse you with words that are not saying anything at all, or only appear to be saying something.
ELP: They may be confused about what they really feel.
AS: But sometimes they want to be obscure about how they really feel. Or, they don’t want to be pegged down either.
ELP: Is all your work centered around a religious reverence for the image?
AS: I’m a believer in beauty. One of the ways I have of expressing myself is with composition; with form, with concept, and also with color. I try to make objects that I find aesthetically beautiful, objects that I want to live with. That’s my aesthetic. I see other people’s work and they don’t have the same rule. They make things that are ugly; they make things that make no sense, and they make things for the hell of it without an idea or purpose. But still they find an audience and a market. But I want to make things that are aesthetically pleasing to me, because they are not only pleasant, but also calm, and hit the right buttons in terms of aesthetics.
ELP: If you exhibited the Piss Christ photograph for the first time today, do you think you would still get the same reception?
AS: I think it all depends on where. If it was a gallery, probably not. If it’s a museum, that’s another story. And because of that, that’s one of the reasons I haven’t had a museum show in America in thirty years. I had one in The Station Museum in Texas, a few years ago but that’s a private museum. But not since 1994, when I had a show in The New Museum, have I had a retrospective in America. I’ve had exhibitions in Europe, France, and Belgium. So many big exhibitions abroad. And there they don’t care about Piss Christ. Even in Beijing, China. They had a big banner with the Piss Christ on it for my show at the Red Brick Museum, a few years ago. It all depends on the context. Within the art world, Piss Christ is not a big stir, but outside the art world it can be, particularly when it is a museum, and there are board members and funders who have to answer to anyone who objects to the picture.
ELP: Photographing an image of Christ or The Virgin Mary in fluid, takes it out of context but it still represents the Church, and maybe that’s the center of their objection.
AS: Here’s the thing; when I was eight years old I made my holy communion. When I was twelve I made my confirmation. I remember preparing for confirmation – going to religious instruction – and I remember the nun saying, “When you are confirmed, that means you become a soldier of God.” So, I feel like I’ve always been a soldier of God. But the whole thing about religion is, they always focus on the body and blood of Christ, and as a Christian, I feel I have the right to explore the body and blood of Christ, and to picture it in the way that I do. And for me, as I’ve always said, getting back to all my work, even Piss Christ: it’s a beautiful object.
ELP It is, and it has become even more so, maybe. Do you find that, maybe before, but certainly since 1986, there is an institutional “shock value”; meaning that institutions and society absorb the shock of an image and that it then becomes commercialized?
AS: But again, it goes back to context. Supreme [a sportswear company] used Piss Christ on a tee-shirt. They’ve used other images of my work on a skate board, hoodies, pants, and it’s fine. You know, Piss Christ has not been shown in a museum in many, many years, and I think if it was shown in a museum, depending on the museum and depending on who gets upset, it could be an issue. Even today.
ELP: I suspect all of your work is about humanity. But for me, The History of Sex series is my favorite. You can’t get around the old naked bodies of people who still have desires and sexual experiences at the same time society is trying to push them into a corner.
AS: Since sex has a human body, it’s both a blessing and a curse. We don’t know what to do with it. And what we do, we’re supposed to not talk about it or keep it private. But at the same time, it’s all over the place in other ways, in other forms. So, it’s a double standard. I was watching a movie the other day on the movie channel. It was from the Sixties, and there was a scene where it was obvious that a little bit of a woman’s breast was showing. Not even the nipple, but they had to cover that up. If you go to TCM (Turner Classic Movies), they won’t do that. But, certain channels, which I hate, will censor the movie; blurring things and bleeping certain words. Some of these movies are thirty, forty, fifty years old and you still have a problem showing them to an audience.
ELP: I encountered that on some of the cable channels and I was surprised. I have dvd copies of some of the same movies and they aren’t censored at all.
AS: Exactly. They shouldn’t be censored. It’s a double standard and it also discredits the movie. There is a big cultural divide. Sometimes, when you’re watching television, and you turn on an old movie, and then you look at the information – year was it made, who is the director. And then you see not only misinformation, but there is no mention of some of the great actors. These movie programs are being run by people who have no idea who these actors are. They are just putting words together which has no meaning for them, which is unfortunate. It’s a part of movie history that’s gone. But there is something that is happening with museums, film industry, everywhere. And that is, it has to be politically correct. And that’s a problem.
ELP: Today, people are transgender, fluid gender, or non-gender. You have to use a certain word and not their name.
AS: I read that the Oscars, in response to the “slap that was heard around the world,” in response to Will Smith slapping the shit out of Chris Rock for no reason at all, I thought it was abominable, not only what Will Smith did, but the Academy’s reaction, particularly the members who were there who gave Smith a standing ovation. You know, if that had been a white man either doing the slapping or being slapped, it would have been a different story. They almost treated it like this is a black on black crime, let’s not get involved. That’s their thing, they’ll settle it their way and we don’t have to get involved. It was horrendous how the Academy responded. But also, in response to that, I read somewhere that now there are certain guidelines, requisites, conditions under which a film can be submitted and considered. Meaning it has to have the right boxes checked in terms of gender, race, everything. It’s a far cry from when movies were judged on their own.
ELP: Do you also see that Will Smith/Chris Rock encounter as a kind of reverse prejudice?
AS: I think so. If it had been a white man slapping a black man, it would have been a different thing. No question about it; the white man would have been arrested on the spot. I thought it was really odd the way it was handled. And then, the fact of how it was handled afterwards, and you have to implement rules to show your muscle. But, you implement rules that make no sense in terms of what happened.
ELP: It’s part of a kind of tidal wave of cultural amnesia.
AS: Exactly. But, sometimes it’s amnesia that is not happening on purpose. Or, it’s ignorance. That’s all it is.
ELP: In your forty-plus-year career, have you seen the “lords of culture” change? Or do they ever really change?
AS: Culture changes all the time and you don’t know how people are going to react. In the old days, the Sixties, when I was a teenager, we knew there was a right, there was a left. We were young kids and we were anti-establishment by nature. At least we knew who the bad guys were. We had an idea of who we didn’t want to become. Now, you don’t know who the bad guys are. To the Republicans, the Democrats are leftist and they’re weird; they’re the bad guys. It’s very easy to point fingers nowadays, particularly when everyone has a phone and an opinion.
ELP: Strange how it took the January 6th riots in the Capitol, to convince a number of Republicans that Donald Trump was not their politician of choice. But even now they are not convinced.
AS: They’re not sure if they are better off with Trump or without him. They rode the Trump wave for as long as they could. Now, if they are on the fence about it, it isn’t because they have doubts about Donald Trump’s politics or morality, but Trump’s future. The reason they don’t stick by him is they want to back a better horse. A winning horse. Guys like Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence were so far up Trump’s ass, you couldn’t even see them anymore. Even the George Santos debacle is a joke. But he’s entertaining and they aren’t going to get rid of him because the Republicans need him. They need him for his one vote.
ELP: In your series on Prisoners, do you see a parallel between victims of the 17th Century Spanish inquisition and The Guantanamo Bay detention camp prisoners who were tortured? One concerns the church, the other concerns the government.
AS: We don’t know particularly how they treated the 17th Century prisoners, but I imagine they put hoods over their heads sometimes. The hood is very symbolic for me in those pictures. But I see connections. I see the hood connected to The Klan; connected to religious figures. That hood is very menacing and a very powerful symbol.
ELP: Monks wearing hoods is a powerful symbol.
AS: Exactly. I think that’s something that happened with Covid also. People not only wore hoods, but they embraced the mask. I know for a fact some people like wearing it; they like being invisible, anonymous. Because they know they aren’t but they’re still making a strong impression by wearing that mask.
ELP: After you took the pictures of the Grand Dragons, did they tell you what they thought of them?
AS: Only once. After I took the pictures over a two-week period in Atlanta, I came home. I was married to Julie Ault at the time. Someone called the house, and they said, “Tell Andres I saw the picture [in a newspaper] of the Klansman, and tell him he did good.” As Julie asked him, “Who’s calling?” He said, “A Klansman.” And he laughed. Then he said, “Tell him he’s still a brother and always welcome in Georgia, just as long as he doesn’t say anything bad about the Klan.” Now, I have a feeling that was David Holland, who was the Imperial Wizard at the time; he would have been the only one savvy enough or (who) care(d) enough to call me.
ELP: That’s quite a gesture.
AS: Yeah. I think he respected me. When I first met him, he gave me an appointment. I had to meet him in a dark park, somewhere. So, I go with my assistant and we’re waiting. Then a car appeared and once the headlights went off, they come over. And one guy says to the other guy, “This is the notorious Andres Serrano.” So, for the head of the Klan to call me “notorious,” that was something else. I took it as a compliment.
ELP: I would take it as a compliment too. An ironic one.
AS: Exactly. WM
Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College. Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle. His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010. MidMarch Arts Press. His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS. Olympia, Washington. 2020view all articles from this author