Visitors to "Chris Ofili: Night and Day" at New York's New Museum should be prepared for two phenomena: first, a mild public stir over the return to Gotham, after 15 years, of a painting so controversial that its presence in a museum exhibition once led to mayoral threats of withdrawal of the institution's public funds. Second, the emotional inverse of such frenzy: an atmosphere of reverie on the museum's two largest floors, where the artist has created dim, quiet enclosures for a number of arresting though less notorious paintings.
The museum-wide show (through Jan. 25), the 46-year-old Nigerian-British artist's first major U.S. institutional solo, spans Ofili's career and contains more than 30 paintings plus two immersive environments. One of these, on the fourth floor, is an enormous mural of a jungle in purplish hues, the result of a week's work by specially commissioned scenic painters, that serves as a backdrop for Ofili's canvases. The other is a darkened gallery where visitors must pause for several moments to let their eyes adjust. Once they do, spectral figures seem to emerge from nearly monochrome paintings in the artificial gloaming; a standout is Blue Devils (2014), in which snarling police officers grapple with a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt.
Also on view is Ofili's delicate "Afro Margin" series of pencil drawings and two bronze sculptures, both riffs on Christian iconography: Saint Sebastian (2007), which imagines the figure bristling with nails and skewered by two spears, which he grasps in each hand; and Annunciation (2006), in which a potbellied, afroed Archangel Gabriel and a lithe, gleaming Virgin Mary are entwined in an embrace. Ninety watercolor portrait studies form a partial rehang of the lauded 2005 exhibition "Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005," curated by Thelma Golden for the Studio Museum in Harlem.
"We are particularly proud because for the first time in 15 years, we brought back the notorious painting The Holy Virgin Mary, which was attacked, criticized and vandalized in 1999 where it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum," said New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni, who organized the show along with curator Gary Carrion-Murayari and assistant curator Margot Norton, in his remarks to the press on Tuesday. The 1996 work was smeared with paint by a vandal during the exhibition "Sensation" (1999-2000), which showcased the collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani made it the object of a moral crusade. Ironically, the mayor claimed that the work derided "someone else's religion," but the artist, at least at the time, was a practicing Catholic, as A.i.A. editor Elizabeth C. Baker pointed out in an editorial.
In light of recent acts of vandalism at exhibitions by Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Paul McCarthy, A.i.A. asked Gioni whether the museum is concerned about the controversial work's security.
"Certain shows attract certain attention because people ask these type of questions," Gioni said, "so I'm not going to answer it. Because the thing that excites any stupid act of iconoclasm is media attention." A wall label, meanwhile, touts the work's key role in New York city cultural history; a security guard hovers next to the work; and a strip of tape on the floor subtly warns visitors to keep their distance.
Another recent return of a once-scandalous work might ease any concerns the museum may have. Two years ago, Andres Serrano's once-incendiary Piss Christ (1987), which shows a crucifix immersed in urine, went on view at Manhattan's Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art amid much anticipatory hand-wringing; the public response was a collective shrug.
The Holy Virgin Mary is itself an imposing presence: 8 feet tall and draped in a flowing blue garment, with halo-like striations in the golden paint around her head and collaged details from pornographic magazines. But she is presented in context, surrounded by 11 contemporaneous paintings in the same vein: figurative, heavily patterned, glitter-encrusted, dotted with map pins and propped up with balls of elephant dung, which also appears on some of the works' surfaces. These gestures cannily satirize both the exploitative side of hip-hop culture and the visual conventions of religious iconography. "The asses," as Ofili calls them, stand in for the angels that flock around Renaissance depictions of the Virgin, whose right breast, conventionally exposed in such representations, is here depicted with a clump of dung.
In a discussion with Gioni at the museum last night, the artist acknowledged that the work, for him, raised the specter of self-censorship: "I do remember showing it and thinking, ‘Oh, people are going to go crazy now.' But what happened to freedom? You have to stand up and go with it, because the minute I start editing . . . then I've got some serious problems that I have to deal with on my own."
And besides, for his part, Ofili is sanguine about the work's shock factor. After Gioni rehearsed the painting's troubled history, the artist said, "You know, when I saw it upstairs I thought, ‘It's not that offensive.'"
UPDATED: This article previously misidentified a figure in Ofili's painting Blue Devils.