New York

Andres Serrano

When “A History of Andres Serrano/A History of Sex” opened earlier this year at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, the institution proposed an illustrated poster for the exhibition that would be displayed on billboards. The image selected, A History of Sex (Leo’s Fantasy), 1996, shows a woman in a hiked—up skirt, one hand on her hip, the other behind the head of a bare-chested young man, into whose open mouth she’s urinating. Church groups protested. Conservatives lobbied a Dutch court to halt distribution of the poster. Paint bombs were lobbed at the museum’s walls. So much for the fantasy of a sexually sophisticated Europe. Ironically, months later in New York, the show opened to a muted response. Maybe controversy is yet to come, or maybe this time around the pictures will be left to speak for themselves.

When “A History of Sex” opened at Paula Cooper’s new space in Chelsea—a neighborhood formerly known for after-hours sex clubs and hookers in hot pants—sex was in the air. Visitors had to walk past a prominently displayed sign alerting them to the adult nature of the material in the gallery’s cathedral-like setting. There, under the vaulted ceiling, was an elegant installation of perfectly lit photographs. Gorgeous four-by-five-foot Cibachrome color prints of images shot primarily in Amsterdam in 1995 and 1996—featuring bondage, masturbation, and oral sex and accessorized with ropes, tit clamps, and cock rings—glowed like stained-glass windows.

Their effect, at first, was stunning, thanks to the scale and content of the work. Individual pictures were clearly successful, too, their gravitational pull converging with visitors’ particular tastes and proclivities. But after some time, the impact wore off. After the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, gay liberation, AIDS, a decade of talk shows, daily encounters with ads featuring models who look us in the eye and snake their hands down their designer pants, and adults and kids alike exploring the frontiers of sexuality on the Web, the operatic theatricality of some of Serrano’s pictures seemed self-conscious, arch, even strangely behind the times.

Throughout Serrano’s career, the images that have provoked and then lingered in the mind have transcended mere storytelling. They are restrained, beautiful, minimal: abstract meditations on bodily fluids, icy portraits of Klan members with eyes staring out from behind hoods, luridly seductive still-lifes, at once compelling and repellent, of dead bodies in the morgue. The big themes and abstract, graphic punch gave these metaphoric pictures an edgy remove from reality. Viewers were lifted from the time and space of conventional documentary photography to feel whatever it was they were feeling in the presence of these ambiguous shots and to think about what they were seeing.

That’s not the case with “A History of Sex,” which strands viewers in a cross fire of costumes and competing visual references, a variety show of amateurs and models acting out scripted sexual scenarios. The show isn’t encyclopedic in any sense; there’s no hetero penetration, no lesbians, no rape, no feces, no pedophilia, no cum shot. Still, there’s plenty to marvel at—lots of finely detailed primary and secondary sexual characteristics, a bound geisha, a hot octogenarian, and one woman whose hand is shoved up a guy’s ass as if he were a puppet. She wears a crucifix and stares out of the frame; he looks right through the camera’s lens and into a viewer’s eyes, without joy, pain, amusement, or a traced passion.

So what, then, is triggered in viewers’ minds when, in a public space, they’re looking eye to eye at monumental pictures of a nude woman stroking a horse’s dick, a contortionist’s genitals, a gagged priest, a spread-legged hermaphrodite, a Pierrot giving head to a Pierrette? What’s to be learned about the rush, spirituality, or history of sex from jewel-toned pictures that bounce between off-color sentimentality and Teutonic perfection? Do the references they call to mind—figure studies, genre scenes, ethnographic nudes, bodybuilding pictures, pinups, nudist photography, and pornography—make this work more complicated? Stronger? Harder? Deeper?

In the past, Serrano has known success as a provocateur, pulling off original and haunting pictures. But the big and glamorous pictures in “A History of Sex” aren’t quite convincing; for that matter, they’re not even new. The first known nude photographs were taken as early as 1841, when models had to remain motionless for ten minutes at a pose. And in art, sex has always been with us—from Indian miniatures to Jeff Koons, Imogen Cunningham to Karen Finley, Charles Demuth to Sue Williams. In life, the most powerful, complex, and challenging depictions of sexual explicitness don’t loom over us, but speak more usefully, intimately, and convincingly of our pleasures, desires, and worst fears, of our love-hate relationships with our bodies, and to the boundaries we draw between private and public.

Marvin Heiferman is a writer and freelance curator.