Whitney Museum commissions, then rejects Charles Ray nude sculpture

The latest issue of The New Yorker includes a profile of sculptor Charles Ray written by Calvin Tompkins.

The article covers two sad art world scandal involving the same work, Ray’s sculpture Huck and Jim depicting the characters from Huckleberry Finn.

Jim, the runaway slave, is nine feet tall, a handsome black man in the prime of life, standing very straight and gazing somewhat apprehensively into the distance. His right hand, palm down in what appears to be a protective gesture, hovers a few inches above the bent back of the fourteen-year-old Huck, who is reaching down with one arm to scoop something—frogs’ eggs, Ray said—out of the river. Both figures are naked.

You can see a photo of Ray’s Huck and Jim accompanying this Artnet News article.


In 2009, the Whitney invited Ray to propose a sculpture for the public plaza outside the museum’s planned new location in the West Village. (That new location just opened a few weeks ago.) Tompkins continues:

Ray showed his preliminary design to Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, and Donna De Salvo, its chief curator, and both of them knew immediately that it was going to be a great work of art. The doubts that seeped in during the next few months had nothing to do with aesthetics. They stemmed from the museum’s growing concern that this particular image of a naked African-American man and a naked white teen-ager in close proximity, presented in a public space with no other art works to provide context, might offend non-museumgoing visitors—thousands of whom pass through the area every day on their way to or from the adjacent entrance to the High Line.

The museum eventually offered to put the sculpture inside the museum. Ray rejected that option. The Whitney ended up turning down the piece.

And then it happened again!

The finished version of “Huck and Jim,” cast in stainless steel, was going to be one of the major pieces in his Chicago exhibition; he and James Rondeau, the institute’s contemporary-art curator, planned to install it at the entrance to the institute’s new contemporary-art wing, but, once again, problems arose. The site was ruled out because passersby would have to look at full-frontal male genitalia.

Holy shit, what is wrong with the art world today?!? What century is this again?

It’s not like Ray took anyone by surprise. His sculptures over the past 25 years have frequently featured nudity, including plenty of full-frontal male genitalia (eg, Shelf and Male Mannequin) and two true épater-la-bourgeoisie classics (Family Romance and Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley …).

Why invite an artist to create a work for your plaza, or stage a major career retrospective, then get squeamish when that artist does exactly what he’s always done?

(Whitney press photo by Nic Lehoux.)