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Collector Steven Cohen Gifts Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary to MoMA

Hedge fund manager Steven Cohen is donating Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting, which features a black Madonna against a gold background replete with images of female genitals and pieces of elephant dung, sparked an uproar when it was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum show “Sensation” in 1999. Most of the critics of the piece were Catholic, and they were aghast over the eight-foot-tall depiction of the religious figure.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also famously took offense at the controversial exhibition, calling it “sick stuff,” and even tried to withhold city funding from the museum until it shut down the show. In response, the museum filed a lawsuit against the mayor accusing him of violating the first amendment by campaigning to halt payments, fire the board of trustees, and evict the institution. The legal battle ended a year later, when Giuliani agreed to restore the museum’s payments.

Holy Virgin Mary was sold at Christie’s auction house in London in June 2015. It netted $4.5 million, a record for the artist. It was also featured in the New Museum’s major retrospective of Ofili’s work in 2014. Carroll Dunham reviewed the show for the February 2015 issue of Artforum. He wrote: “The most inspiring thing about Ofili’s public response to the Giuliani diatribes back in the day was his refusal to explain or defend his painting, apparently feeling that he’d already said it all in the painting itself.”

Dunham continued: “This exhibition was permeated by a belief that painting can speak—has always spoken—without becoming just a talking point, and that its deepest layers of content can partake equally of the historical and the autobiographical without needing to choose.”

Cohen, a prominent contemporary art collector, has served as a member of MoMA’s board since 2016. Last year, he donated $50 million to the institution through the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation in support of MoMA’s capital campaign, which aims to raise enough funds to cover its ongoing renovation and expansion project.

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