Steve Cohen Donates Dung-Adorned Art That Giuliani Tried to BanBy
The canvas by Chris Ofili sits on two globes of elephant waste
In 1999, New York mayor said it desecrated the Catholic Church
The painting of a black Virgin Mary beside lumps of elephant dung so offended then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that he sued to remove it from the Brooklyn Museum almost two decades ago.
Now “The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili is entering the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art as a gift from billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen.
The canvas stirred controversy at the Brooklyn Museum during the 1999 "Sensation" exhibition of works by the Young British Artists from the collection of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Giuliani criticized Ofili’s painting as an affront to Catholics. The work remained on display for the show’s duration, amid a First Amendment legal battle, and Giuliani ultimately abandoned his efforts to evict the museum and cut its city financing.
The 8-foot-tall canvas depicts a black Madonna on a gold background. The figure is wrapped in a petal-like robe with one exposed breast made of elephant excrement. The work rests on two globes of dung, one spelling “Virgin” and the other “Mary.”
“Setting aside its history and notoriety, it’s a magnificent painting,” said Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture.
Cohen, the chairman of Point72 Asset Management, is a museum trustee and a major collector of modern and contemporary art. Last year, he gave $50 million for MoMA’s capital campaign through the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation.
In 2015, “Holy Virgin Mary" fetched $4.6 million at Christie’s in London and it remains the auction record for Ofili.
The 1996 painting was accepted during an acquisition committee meeting for the painting and sculpture department on Monday. Each year, the museum’s six curatorial departments have regular meetings where curators present works to the trustees.
Ofili was joined by three other black artists whose works were acquired for the museum this week, according to Temkin.
The others are:
- "No Title (The Ugly American)," 1962/1964, a painting by Herve Telemaque. It was a gift of trustees Marie-Josee and Henry Kravis in honor of Jerry Speyer.
- “Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins)," 1970, a painting by Barkley Hendricks, depicting a black woman on a sofa blowing bubble gum. MoMA’s first work by the artist, who died last year, was a gift from trustees Glenn Dubin, Tony Tamer and Ronnie Heyman.
- “Leaning," 1980, by Maren Hassinger, a sculptural installation made of 31 wire and rope units. Exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85" last year, it was acquired by the Modern Women’s Fund and Heyman.
“I view adding all these artists to the collection as something essential,” Temkin said. “People look at our collection as a place that provides history of art in our time. And these artists and works are essential to art history, we belatedly realize."