The Phaidon Folio

What Is Abject Art? (Tell Me That's Not What I Think It Is...)

What Is Abject Art? (Tell Me That's Not What I Think It Is...)
Robert Gober, Untitled (Man Coming Out Of Woman), 1993-94. Image via Flickr.

The following is excerpted from Phaidon's Art in Time :

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1993 exhibition ‘Abject Art’ canonized abjection in 1980s and 1990s art. Abject art re-examined the human body after decades of neglect in previous mainstream art movements: Pop , Minimalism , Conceptual art , and Postmodernism all largely ignored the visceral body. But when the body returned, it was not the idealized body traditionally seen in Western figurative sculpture dating back to the ancient Greeks. This new body was dejected, diseased, filthy, wounded—in a word: Abject.

Abjection, as employed in art, was a concept borrowed from the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s book The Powers of Horror (1980). For Kristeva, abjection is the feeling of revulsion and disgust when the boundaries we use to categorize the world, such as inside/outside, animal/human, animate/inanimate and life/death, are transgressed.

Kiki Smith, Tale, 1992. Image via Kiki Smith, Tale , 1992. Image via

Ineed, in Abject art it is hard to draw clear boundaries between what is of the body and what is outside it. Tale, by Kiki Smith (b.1954), is a lifesize sculpture of a woman seeming to crawl on all fours like an animal on the gallery floor. Her haunches are smeared with faux faeces, and a nearly 10-foot long tail of excrement stretches in a straight line behind her. Is Smith’s crawling figure animal or human? Is her excrement part of the body or exterior to it?

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990. Image via MutualArt. Robert Gober, Untitled , 1990. Image via MutualArt.

Similar questions are raised in Untitled , by Robert Gober (b. 1954). A sack-like form with aspects of both male and female torsos, it confuses the distinction between human and object, a confusion reinforced by the use of actual human hair in this hyper-realist wax sculpture.

Paul McCarthy, Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma, 1994. Image via Artnet. Paul McCarthy, Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma, 1994. Image via Artnet.

Paul McCarthy (b. 1945) creates a preverse hybrid of 1960s Pop art and Abject art in Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma . Dressed up as Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, the artist defiles the popular icon as he dips his phallic pipenose into condiments—ketchup, chocolate syrup, and mayonnaise—that evoke bodily fluds as waste: blood, excrement, and semen. The costumed artist often becomes indistinguishable from the inanimate stuffed dummy with which he interacts.

Abject art emerged during the height of the culture wars in the United States in which art was facing censorship by the religious right wing. Politicians such as Senator Jesse Helms railed against artists Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) and Andres Serrano (b. 1950) for gay imagery as well as imagery they perceived as blasphemous. The right wing was successful in placing new restrictions on the National Edowment for the Arts, a United States government organization that funds the arts.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987. Image via Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987. Image via

Serrano’s Piss Christ was at the center of the controversy. In this highly aestheticized  photograph, a crucifixion bathed in a divine glow of red as in fact bathed in the artist’s urine. The work is typical of Serrano’s portfolio, which includes photographs of blood, semen, urine, and milk. Significantly, the culture wars and Abject art coincided with the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Fears about bodily fluids, as well as homophobia, were rampant. Some artists consciously treated the AIDS crisis in their work, some did not; but in either case the associations were unavoidable.



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