New York

Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano’s new, large color photographs taken in morgues are portraits, figure studies, and studies of the hands, feet, heads, and genitals of corpses. We see, at close range and larger than life, stab wounds and scalpel incisions, flesh bloated from drowning and discolored by poison, ears and noses half burned away, fists clenched as though to ward off blows.

Serrano had permission to take lights and backdrops into the morgues, that is, he worked with the freedom and control of the studio artist, yet handled his subjects like a mediocre amateur. Light: from how-to books of glamour photography, unconsidered, predictable; emphasis: dull when not haphazard; drawing: unresolved when not just rendering; drapery: flat tending to featureless; compositions: only arrangements—with so much in each picture taken up by black background, chalk-white linen, unachieved or inexpressive forms and other visually inert or only nominally visual material, what’s to compose?

Art’s beautiful mutilated dead and beautiful death agonies are myriad. At random, then (and setting aside all dying and dead Christs), Why did Philip II want Bosch’s damned in his Escorial bedroom? Caravaggio’s patrons to live with Goliath’s and Holofernes’ severed heads? Zurbará’s with his Saint Agatha carrying her severed breasts on a silver plate? Partly for the discharge and containment of torturing thoughts and emotions (including sadistic and masochistic ones). Serrano worked apparently unaffected by his subjects, possessed by a self-importance reflected in the showy lighting and the affected titles, oh so deadpan, so Olympian: Death by Drowning, Rat Poison Suicide (all works 1992). The general title also suggests that Serrano was thinking more about packaging and his own art-world image than about either his subject or art. “The Morgues (The Causes of Death)” is all wrong. We see no morgue, and causes precede death. Serrano gives us only effects. The work is slick and bathetic: popper art, hitting and fading in the same whiff.

One consequence of ending up in a morgue is how hospital and morgue workers dress and pose your corpse for the journey there and out to the grave. Serrano’s catalogue of these effects includes a woman’s crossed hands echoing a minor gesture of Venus pudica; a rosary dangling from a man’s folded hands, the small crucifix resting on his penis; a silver ribbon, with bow, attaching an identity card to a baby’s ankle and making the small legs and feet resemble those of a ballerina en point; and drapery vaguely reminiscent of Renaissance painting. These reveal his imagination as informed by puerile rhetoric, sentimentality, shopworn surrealism, and a rudimentary inventory of figures in art to which bodies in nature might correspond.

We live with art concerning death because in it beauty, love, and the imagination contend with the horror of mortality, conceding to it from the outset all its power; in order to transcend, imaginatively, momentarily, but repeatedly, what Walter Benjamin called simply “the fear”; and for the sense, created ultimately by esthetic pleasure, that something human is at least as great as the enemy and (like love) gets up for every round despite our particular defeats. Taken as a whole, humanity’s responses to death, from children’s dead-baby jokes to Lear’s lament over Cordelia’s body, run the gamut of our emotional and imaginative responses. But Serrano’s pictures fall within the realm of social, not esthetic, responses. They resemble the attention-seeking utterances of a bore trying to impress us with his sangfroid, his blasé, deadpan, yet somehow sanctimonious urbanity, as he rubs our noses in mere fact.

Ben Lifson