Chris Ofili’s “Lime Bar” (2014) and “Cocktail Serenade” (2014), the New Museum

What are we to make of the artist Chris Ofili? Acclaimed by critics worldwide, awarded Britain’s Turner Prize in 1998 (its first black winner), denounced by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1999 for his Holy Virgin Mary ornamented with elephant dung, chosen as Britain’s representative at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where he collaborated on the British Pavilion with architect David Adjaye, and given a renowned show at the Tate in London in 2010. Now he has a spectacular show at the New Museum, called “Night and Day,” where crowds of people murmur quietly while respectfully examining his appealing paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

Between Heaven and Hell, Summarizes the New Museum

Ofili was so traumatized by his New York experience that he’s been reluctant to exhibit his work here since, says the New Yorker. He’s spent the intervening years experimenting with radically new forms and approaches, whose “fluid colors” and “elongated and enigmatic” forms remind critic Calvin Tompkins of Matisse.

Ofili's "Ovid-Desire" and "Ovid-Acteaon" (2011-12)
Ofili’s “Ovid-Desire” and “Ovid-Acteaon” (2011-12)

But the truth is that getting banned—however traumatic—can be a great career move. In the old days getting banned in Boston catapulted writers to the top rank—Walt Whitman, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, and dozens more. Ofili went one better by getting ostracized in New York. The offending piece of art—today his most famous painting, says the New Museum—was his Holy Virgin Mary (1996). Certainly an unconventional interpretation, his black Madonna (below on the right) stares out at her viewers without expression. She is surrounded by what look like small winged creatures that turn out to be female genitalia. Her exposed right breast is made of elephant dung, laid bare by the opening of her blue robe.

Ofili's "No Woman, No Cry" and "Holy Virgin Mary" at the New Museum
Ofili’s “No Woman, No Cry” and “Holy Virgin Mary” at the New Museum

In some ways Ofili should be the darling of conservatives. His interest in the heritage of art is immense—from the Paleolithic cave paintings of Africa through the ancient Greeks and Romans to the glories of the Italian Renaissance, he calls on his classical birthright for inspiration (including his Madonna’s Raphael-like blue robe). But he doesn’t mimic, and therein lies part of the problem. He chooses those elements that speak to him, and those nearly always are sexual and, more often than not, shocking. The genitalia look like putti from just a few feet away, and most viewers are surprised (even alarmed) to realize up close that they are not tiny winged boys.

The Profane and the Sacred: A Unique Interpretation of the Annunciation

Surely no one has previously sculpted the New Testament’s Annunciation of the Incarnation as Ofili has: the Angel Gabriel as a predatory black bird-man with gorgeous, bronze swan-like wings copulating with a golden, submissive Virgin Mary. Whatever Ofili intended with his black Madonna (and after the Giuliani fracas he refrained from explaining), his Annunciation is meant to disturb. Depicting Gabriel as black and rapacious rather than as the traditional benign white angel is a statement of some kind, but what? Gabriel’s coarse matte finish is also some kind of statement in relation to Mary’s elegant sheen, but what? Gabriel’s ugly white teeth grimace, while Mary’s face is blocked.

Ofili's "Annunciation"

The New Museum is Making its Mark

Founded in 1977, the New Museum seriously grabbed the attention of New Yorkers when it opened its new 7-story, 8-level building designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA in 2002. It regards itself “as a home for contemporary art and an incubator for new ideas.” And so it is.

New Museum building designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA
New Museum building designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA

Chris Ofili: Night and Day runs until January 25, 2015

Hours: Tues & Wed 11 AM-6 PM; Thurs, 11 AM-9 PM; Fri-Sun, 11 AM-6 PM; closed Mon
Where: The New Museum, 235 Bowery
Phone: 212.219.1222

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association. Get in touch with her @JuliaManhattan.