Artist Andres Serrano is no stranger to inciting controversy with his work—and his latest outing, “Infamous” at New York’s Fotografiska, is no exception. The exhibition includes a portrait of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, shot just months before the disgraced financier’s apparent suicide while awaiting trial for sex trafficking.
The portrait wasn’t initially taken for inclusion in the show, which focuses on a new series of photographers of racist memorabilia and other historic depictions of race that Serrano has purchased on eBay and other online auctions.
“After he died, I decided I had to put Jeffrey Epstein’s portrait in ‘Infamous’ because there’s no one more infamous than Jeffrey,” Serrano told Artnet News in a recent interview.
The portrait of a smiling, distinguished-looking Epstein speaks eloquently to one of the show’s core themes: the banality of evil and the rotten core at the heart of our nation, built on the backs of slave labor.
Artifacts that Serrano purchased for “Infamous” include an 1822 bill of sale for a young boy name Joshua and a 1910 postcard with a photograph of a lynching. Days before the show’s opening, however, curators at Fotografiska made the decision to pull five of the most disturbing images from the show, including the lynching postcard.
As an artist who has made it his mission to provoke viewers, Serrano felt ambivalent about the move. “I was very surprised—it was unexpected,” Serrano said of the late-in-the-game change. “The times are changing and people, they’re cautious… I’m okay with that.”
(A Fotografiska spokesperson said the works’ removal was a curatorial decision based on wall space, cohesiveness of the show, and lack of further context on select images. “It was important to the museum that the images were properly contextualized,” the spokesperson said. “These decisions were not made to censor the work.”)
When the museum gave Serrano the opportunity to present the works on Instagram instead, where they could be proceeded by content warnings, he took it.
“America might think it’s lily-white and innocent, but it’s not,” Serrano said. “I love America, but let’s be clear about America. America was born of blood. It was founded with the blood of the Native American people who were murdered for their land.”
The Story Behind That Epstein Image
The show offers plenty in the way of haunting imagery, including the Epstein portrait, which comes with a stranger-than-fiction backstory. Serrano agreed to shoot Epstein’s photograph in exchange for a 16th-century statue of the Madonna.
Serrano, who collects Renaissance art, had tried to purchase the sculpture and a matching statue of St. John from an antique shop in 1995—only to learn that a man called Epstein had beaten him to the punch, splitting up the pair.
Epstein soon learned that he owned a work of art Serrano coveted, and they met several times over the years to discuss it. (Serrano clarified these were business meetings attended by the artist’s wife, Irina Movmyga, and never involved dinner, parties, or Epstein’s infamous private jet or island.)
Fueled by an overwhelming desire to reunite the two religious statues, Serrano agreed in 2018 to a trade: Epstein’s portrait for the Madonna. The financier followed up—improbably, three months before his arrest in July 2019 and four months before his death—to secure his half of the deal.
“I have no doubt that Jeffrey Epstein was a monster and pedophile,” Serrano added. “I would have dealt with the the devil himself for that Madonna. And apparently, I did.”
Epstein’s portrait appears in the exhibition alongside a 2004 photograph of Donald Trump that artist shot for his “America” series, highlighting the president’s ties to the disgraced financier.
Taking Inspiration From Donald Trump
“Infamous” grew out of Serrano’s last exhibition “The Game: All Things Trump,” featuring $200,000 worth of Trump memorabilia he purchased at auction. (A book about the project was released last month.) With everything from the flight manual for the short-lived Trump Shuttle to a tiny cake given as a favor at his wedding to Melania Trump, the installation speaks to Trump’s efforts to dominate the American consciousness—and his ultimate success.
“I liked to think that Donald Trump used the flag so much, he embraced America so much, that finally he made her his,” Serrano said. Focusing so closely on the president was far from a pleasant experience—aside from the rush from his auction victories.
“A second Trump term is a free-for-all—he’ll go for broke,” the artist said. “You’re not even going to recognize America.”
He has reservations—albeit much less dramatic ones—about Joe Biden, too. “Biden is a nice guy. He’s regular Joe,” Serrano said. “But I worry that Biden will be an appeaser who will try to go to the middle.” He is more excited about the potential vice president, Kamala Harris, who he photographed for the New Yorker.
Still, a potential Biden presidency would be far better for the country, he says—although less artistically fruitful. “I don’t think Biden inspires art,” Serrano said. “The thing about Donald Trump is if you hate him, he inspires you to do some anti-Trump work.”
A onetime target of the Culture Wars, Serrano is concerned about the future of the US art scene, but doesn’t necessarily blame the president for the current state of affairs. He is more worried about artists and arts workers growing gun-shy of engaging with controversial subjects.
“What I fear is that a wave of self-censorship is going to occur,” he said. “I see it happening already with the [postponement of the] Philip Guston exhibition.”
An “Infamous” Follow-Up
After throwing himself into Trump imagery, Serrano took a similar approach to an even more bracing subject for his latest series on view in “Infamous.” Many of the objects he photographed are overtly racist, designed for mass consumption such as advertising.
The project was completed last year, before the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests it sparked, which Serrano described as “an awareness and awakening that has been long overdue.”
“Although we don’t have lynchings anymore, we do have killings of Black people by the police on a regular basis,” he said.
The objects in his photographs “basically had one intent, and that was to dehumanize Black and Brown people, to make fun of them and turn them into caricatures,” said Serrano.
He maintains it is important to see these images, and to realize how the attitudes that led to their creation still persist in some swaths of US society. To understand our current state of racial discord, we can’t look away from this ugly history.
Indeed, even after delving into racist imagery for months on end and confronting the removal of his own work from his exhibition, Serrano isn’t sure if there’s ever a place for censorship in art. “That’s a tough question,” he said. “I don’t know where the line is, but that’s the reason that I’m an artist.”
“Andres Serrano: Infamous” is on view at Fotografiska, 281 Park Ave South, New York, October 23, 2020–March 14, 2021.
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