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Andres Serrano Artist Talk

  • Date
    Thu, Feb 28

    12:30 PM — 2:00 PM

    Compton-Goethals Hall
    140th and Amsterdam

    Compton-Goethals Hall, 249

    p: 212.650.5647


  • Event Details

    Artist Talk by Andres Serrano.  All are welcome; refreshments provided.

    The only son of an Honduran immigrant father and a mother of Afro-Cuban origin, Andres Serrano was born in New York and spent most of his childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City. Like his family, his predominantly Italian-American neighbors were devoutly Catholic, and religion played a significant part in his growing up - in school, at home and on the streets. When Serrano was still a young boy, his father left the family to return to Honduras. Raised by a mother who spoke little English, and who was often hospitalized by frequent bouts of psychosis, he was forced to fend for himself from an early age.

    After an initial school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, young Serrano began to return to the museum on his own and became enamored with Renaissance painting, in particular its religious iconography. At the age of 15, he dropped out of high school with the ambition of becoming an artist and from 1967-1969 he attended the Brooklyn Museum of Art School. Unfortunately his art practice was delayed for several years after he became caught up with drugs and the harsh street life of New York's urban poor.

    At the age of 28, Serrano gave up drugs and began working in various straight jobs. These included a stint as an assistant art director at an advertising firm, and while he enjoyed the work, he still wished to pursue an art career full-time. Attracted to painting and sculpture yet insecure about his technical abilities, he focused on photography, with which he had become familiar in his position as art director. From the beginning Serrano thought of himself as an artist using photography, and not as a photographer per se, the distinction being that he was not interested in documenting 'reality', but in creating his own.

    Influenced by the pre-war European art movements of Surrealism and Dada, the first images Serrano created (back in 1983) were tableaux incorporating religious iconography, dead animals, raw meat and human subjects, amongst other elements. More than any other, blood was the constant element tying these images together. A symbol for passion and violence, it became the ideal vehicle to convey Serrano's preoccupation with the sacrificial dramas of spiritual, political and sexual practices, and the ecstatic links between them. References to great artists from Rembrandt to Mondrian, and to various cultural forms of memento mori, were also persistent themes that would recur throughout Serrano's oeuvre.

    Subsequently, Serrano decided to use blood not just as content, but as form, resulting in images that were more reductive and abstract than his earlier works. Along with blood, the artist began using urine, milk, and later semen, as the raw materials for his work, producing two overlapping series - 'Body Fluids' and 'Immersions' from 1985-90 - which were to prove far more provocative than he ever intended. In a 1989 congressional session, New York State Senator Alfonse D'Amato tore up a reproduction of one of the images from 'Immersions' - the now infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, titled Piss Christ.

    The action sparked a public debate over the National Endowment for the Arts' funding of 'obscene' art, and for better or worse the ensuing notoriety catapulted Serrano to worldwide fame. In fact, Serrano conceived many of the images from both series as monochromatic studies in light and color value. For example, the first photograph in the series, Milk Blood, 1984, explicitly referenced the geometric abstraction of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.

    In other works, portraits of Ku Klux Klan members photographed in their own milieu ('Klan Series', 1990) and dead bodies mutilated or in the process of decay ('Morgue', 1992) confront viewers with more discomforting images of violence and death. Still, even these retain a certain seductive quality. Drawing from the lexicon of advertising, fashion and even pornography, Serrano's large-format, highly saturated photographs aestheticize their subject matter, even when this is abject in nature. Like the images produced by his peers Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe, Serrano's works often take on an iconic status, and are some of the most arresting images in contemporary photography.