Self proclaimed “outsider” artist Andres Serrano has been a glamorous presence in the New York art world for over twenty years. In the midst of a bustling downtown block, he lives in a self-designed ecclesial space. Immense ceilings and Jerusalem stone walls create a dramatic serenity. The sole window looks out on a burst of urban greenery, as light floods the burnished wooden walls and Church furniture. His only bow to modernity is the 60 inch plasma TV downstairs. One of his large portraits of the Imperial Klan wizard, garbed in green, instead of the usual white hooded costume hangs on a wall. It’s the only 21st century artwork, except for a Jeff Koons piece and a Jenny Holzer work that remain stashed in a 17th century cupboard.
Perhaps best known for the controversy surrounding his infamous 1986 “Piss Christ”, Serrano became instantly famous as an unwilling soldier in the conservative cultural war of the late eighties. Senators denounced him, death threats were made, and for six months, he remembers not allowing his photo to be taken. Serrano recalls a Venetian monsignor telling La Stampa newspaper, he was “a transgressive artist, not a blasphemous one.”
The half Honduran, half Afro Cuban New Yorker has exhibited widely and internationally, creating a magnificent body of work that portrays sexuality, death, guns, homeless people, Klu Klux Klanners, and in his last critically acclaimed show, feces.
IS : Are most of these treasures from Europe?
AS: Yeah , they are either French , English, Italian , German, Spanish.
IS: And how long did it take you to amass this?
AS: I have been collecting for about fifteen years... most of the stuff here is probably about the last ten years.
IS: Do you travel frequently?
AS: I do, sometimes. And a few of my things I have gotten on my travels, but most things I bought either at auction.. at Sotheby's or Christie's or a couple of dealers. My focus is 17th century and earlier. A lot of my things are 17th, 16th and 15th. I even have a 13th century Madonna in my bedroom. She is very Romanesque.
IS: You have been called a conceptualist with a camera rather than a photographer. How do you see yourself?
AS: I like that, as an artist with a camera, rather than a photographer because I studied sculpture and painting at the Brooklyn Museum art school. I was there in 67/ 68. I studied with Calvin Douglas, he was a black teacher. It was a great place.
IS: Did you live in Brooklyn?
A: I was born in Manhattan but the family moved to Williamsburg when I was about 6 or 7, before it was gentrified. I think I was one of the first artists when I arrived in 1957 in Williamsburg. I grew up in Brooklyn until after art school when I was about 19 then I moved into Manhattan. I lived at 95 Havemeyer Street in a building that was owned by my grandmother. My mother and I rented from her and we lived on the 2nd floor. I once saw a receipt from that time and rent was $43 a month. Long gone.
I: Are you religious?
A: I am not a practicing Catholic, I am a Christian... I go to churches first of all in Europe and I go to churches first of all for aesthetic reasons rather than spiritual ones. They are the temples of beauty. I find churches in the US are not old enough for my tastes. So I prefer the churches of Europe.
I ask Andres about his Klan series.
A: There is a curiosity, I was scared, but mostly I was scared of coming back empty handed. First of all I asked the Klan that I met to pose for me, the ex imperial wizard at first refused to pose for me and only after his lawyer asked him several times, he finally relented and said 'yes'. Ironically his lawyer was Jewish. The clan had a Jewish lawyer defending him in the Supreme Court and it was a case where they were trying to wear their masks in public and they lost their case.
IS: How were they as people?
AS: They would talk about niggers, jews and queers, but after they realized I wasn't there to confront them, to judge or debate them, they would settle down and act normal. They realized I was Latino I am sure, they knew I was not white. They were very normal looking, in fact, James .... the ex-imperial wizard was an old man and he looked very normal. But I found, no matter how nice they were to me, as soon as they put on their robes and masks, they assumed a different aura and it was very unsettling. I knew the men behind the masks, and yet once they had their masks on, they had another persona.
IS: The one thing I always really admired is that in going to one of your shows you really have a very in-depth and profound experience. What is the next thing you are working on?
A: It’s a new project. Unbeknownst, music is my first love. I always wanted to be a singer, a musician. I didn’t have the courage. So I have been in the recording studio. What I’m working on is rock, soul, rhythm and blues, maybe a little punky. The record’s called “Vengeance is Mine.” I chose to do some songs I have always loved.While we were in the studio, I was asked, do you have any lyrics? and I said no.. but my girlfriend Irina Movmviga she said, wait a minute, I have to go home. I'll be back. And she came back 2 hours later with lyrics and I didn't even know she wrote songs. On the spot we created a melody and we recorded the song. The next day she wrote 2 other songs which were recorded too.. so there were three originals there, written by Irina on the spot.
I really want to find a record label rather than market it myself. I developed a character, a persona, for this album as a recording artist. I won’t be recording as Andres Serrano but as Brutus Faust.
IS: What will the costume be?
AS: It is very simple.... you’ll have to see. Hopefully, if I get a label interested, I'll let you know and I'll send you a copy. I don't really want to perform at this point, I just want to record. If at some point in the future, I have to perform I'll get ready for that, but right now I just want to record the music and get ready for that. As a kid that music stuff was a dream but I never really tried it. I didn't sing as a child and I was afraid to, but I feel I know music even better than art. It is funny, art doesn't move me emotionally, even as a visual artist, I am not moved by my work, even though I enjoy doing it.
Music moves me and film moves me. More than anything, music moves me. It gives you emotion, a lot of emotion. I feel the art world is very small compared to the people that buy music, who listen to music, to people who go see a movie, to sports, even people who go to wrestling matches. Art has a relatively small space in most people lives.
IS: Is there any artistic group you feel a part of? Mapplethorpe?
AS: All of my life I had a sense of passing through. I always had the sense that I am here now, for the time, but I am not really one of you. And that goes way back to the days of art school, when I became a drug addict, and for about eight years I did a lot of heavy drugs in the lower east side. And even then I felt, yes, I am a part of this but I am not really one of you.
And that feeling has even persisted in my years as an artist. So I always got the sense of passing through. And that allows me to do as many things as I have done in my life, meaning that I am not attached to any one thing.
IS: What's the next thing besides the music that you are interested in, like after doing the whole Shit show?
AS: For me shit was sort of like an end game, meaning that if I don't do anything from here, I am okay with that. I don't produce a show unless there is a reason for it, unless I have been asked by a gallery to do a show, unless there is a venue.
Right now, there are no plans for me to do anything. The ideas are sort of on the back burner. I felt that "shit" was sort of a conclusion to a phase of my life and if I wouldn't do any more as an artist, I wouldn't miss it.
I feel that Marcel Duchamp had a similar attitude when he stopped doing any art work in the last 25 years of his life and just played chess. He knew that he had nothing more to say and rather than repeating himself ad nauseum he decided to leave it alone.
IS: I hope you don't. And all your admirers certainly hope you don't.
AS: If I am invited to do something, maybe I will.
IS: How long did it take to shoot the shit show?
AS: The shit show took me 2 months and most of the shit work was taken in Ecuador in about a two week period.
One of them was my shit, one of them was Luther, my dog's shit, but all the other shits were animal shits. Actually, there were two other human shits, 'Freudian Shit'; which came from my therapist and "Holy Shit" which came from a priest.
IS: You did it in a studio in Ecuador? The light was so amazing.
AS: Most of it was done in a zoo in Ecuador, we just found a room and made it into a studio.
LC: Did you ever do work with sperm?
AS: I did ejaculations in 1989.
IS: Were you influenced by Piero Manzoni who put his shit in a can?
AS: Not at all, because Manzoni put shit in a can. No one has ever taken pictures close up of shit and called it "shit". I feel it is two birds of a different color.
I: Where do you usually work?
AS: I work here. The assistant puts up the equipment, I shoot the picture and then we put it away. I use a Mamiya rb 67. I don't use digital. I like film, I use ciba chrome, I print from scans, the originals are transparencies. 6x7 film. I use a tripod. I studied painting and sculpture, not photography. After two years of painting I felt I couldn't paint really and so after I left art school I lived with a woman called Milly Erwick and she owned a Konica camera. So I started using her camera, but always thinking of myself as an artist using a camera, rather than a photographer.
I would like to write my memoirs one day, but again, I need a reason to write for example if a publisher came to me, I would write. I don't like to waste my time and I like to do my projects when I know where they are going. I work better with a deadline as well.
I was 40 when success really started to happen. I am 59. I was already an older artist, I was surprised since I never thought I would make money from my work. I always wanted to show it and I always thought success would come for me after my death. So I was happily surprised that I'd come to a point where I could make a living off my work.
I: Do you envision staying in New York?
A: I am a hardcore New Yorker, I have been here all of my life. I have lived for four months in Budapest, three months in Rome but I never gave up my apartment in New York. It's home. I remember a few days after Sept. 11 a lot of people were leaving the city and I asked a friend of mine from the Bronx, “Where are you gonna go?” and he said: “Where am I gonna go, I will stay here and defend the city”. And that was the attitude: we are going to stay here to the end.
I: And how do you think your art will be remembered?
A: My artistic legacy is a lot of passion. My legacy as an artist is that I made an impression and that’s the best thing anyone could do.