Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Virgin Mother at Lever House

I like Damien Hirst's giant sculpture The Virgin Mother now, but when I first saw it, I was revolted. Even now I think it's scandalously inappropriate for its spot; maybe that's part of the reason it grew on me.

It's not the nudity that shocked me, it's the skin peeled back. This as neither a nude nor a skeleton, but a cut-away, and the flaps of skin that fold over on the woman's arm and leg show this so much more explicitly than if we were shown just the layers of skin. Here, by leaving the flaps, we understand that the 35 foot tall woman is being dissected before our eyes, and that is what appalled me.

New York Magazine asked some people around town what they thought of the sculpture when it first appeared outside the Lever House Restaurant in the public courtyard under the famous Lever House building. A curator named Reneé Riccardo said this:
It’s about life and death, repulsion and beauty. See the pose? She’s like the Degas ballerinas. Hirst is making a connection to science. In his show at Gagosian, he had the male anatomy, and now this. He’s a father, too, so this piece is especially personal.
He's right about the pose. It's very similar, with the exception of the hand over the pregnant belly. An operations manager for an investment firm said this:
I like it. New York is too conservative with its art. In Italy, there are nudes everywhere. I’m not saying [Hirst] is Michelangelo, but in Mike’s time, he probably got the same reactions. I work in this building, and we’ve gotten calls from clients who want to know who’s responsible for this.
Yes, who is responsible for this? It's Aby Rosen, a real estate developer and art collector who owns the Lever House.

It's jarring, and maybe shocking, but I don't find it offensive. The foetus is a little disconcerting, though.

There was another one cast for London, last May. The statues weigh 13 and a half tons and are among the biggest bronzes in the world, according to the BBC. It was built in 18 separate pieces over a year and a half. A third was planned.

Jerry Saltz, writing in the Village Voice, reviewed Hirst's 2005 Gagosian Gallery show, and had some words about the sculpture:
Worse than the paintings because it's permanent -- not to mention marring the entrance to the beautiful Lever House on Park Avenue -- is Hirst's hideous Virgin Mother, a 35-foot bronze eyesore of a naked pregnant woman with a cutaway view of her womb. Here, Hirst is doing what he's always done: trying to imitate Jeff Koons. He put things in vitrines after Koons did and started painting realistically after Koons. In attempting to equal Koons's stunning Puppy, Hirst has created something even more revolting than Jim Dine's figures on Sixth Avenue. Virgin Mother should be removed straightaway and those responsible for placing it here should be fired or whatever is done with reckless, imbecilic billionaires.
Jeff Koons' Puppy is a giant (43 feet high) sculpture of flowering plants around a wire frame built to look like a cartoonish dog. I don't agree with Saltz's vitriol, nor do I have any idea where it comes from, but he's probably right about Koons' influence (let's put it diplomatically) on Hirst.

My one complaint about The Virgin Mother is with its title. It's too easy to call any female form a "virgin mother," referencing Jesus and Mary, getting credit for one's deep insight into the buried soul of Christianity; I don't buy it. I don't think it's sincere. I have the feeling, though I have no basis for it, that the title was applied after the piece was completed to give it some further cultural and art historical anchoring, and not during the idea phase of the sculpture. In other words, the title strikes me as cynical.

Otherwise, I like The Virgin Mother because it's provocative. I like how it references Degas' ballerina sculpture in such a hideous way. What does it mean? I don't know. I don't think it has anything to do with abortion, as some have said. I like how it fits in its space at the Lever House. It's a surprise when you see it in the courtyard. And as inappropriate as it is for the corporate environment, it works very well in that space amid the glass and steel. One might compare the woman's "inner workings" to the way modern architecture (of which the 1952 Lever House is an excellent example) displays its steel structural frame in ways brick and stone structures never could.

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