Chris Ofili’s Long-Overdue Retrospective at the New Museum Is NYC’s Comeback of the Year


The Web’s Urban Dictionary has two definitions for the verb “to giuliani.” The first, predictably, is “To sodomize with a plunger.” The second, more usefully, reads, “To shamelessly take advantage of tragedy for one’s own personal gain.” Riffs on the man who served as New York City’s mayor from 1994 to 2001, these meanings underscore the crippling effect of scandal on the great majority of artists. History has taught us that confronting political power usually results less in progressive culture-war victories (like Robert Mapplethorpe’s) than in lasting abuse (like Abner Louima’s).

In September 1999, Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-decorated Holy Virgin Mary — part of the Brooklyn Museum’s controversial “Sensation” exhibition — was scapegoated by New York’s lame-duck mayor during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton; Giuliani called the painting “blasphemous” and “sick stuff” and threatened to pull city funding unless it was removed from the show. After multiple tabloid headlines, the Brooklyn Museum’s First Amendment cause prevailed, but at an important cost to Ofili — who virtually disappeared from the American scene. Fifteen years later, the disappointment of seeing this English artist’s work only infrequently in the city has been substantially remedied, thanks to a vibrant New Museum survey that includes hundreds of his lyrical paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Much like the current Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Matisse cutouts, this sparkling display constitutes a sensational NYC comeback.

Titled “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” the New Museum’s offering represents the London-born artist’s first major American solo museum exhibition. A Turner Prize winner in 1998 and the U.K.’s 2003 representative at the storied Venice Biennale, Ofili is still largely misidentified in the U.S. as a second-generation identity artist. As this retrospective shows, that characterization shortchanges his remarkable accomplishments. Beginning with his lushly confrontational Afrocentric Pop paintings in the 1990s, Ofili’s vision grew exponentially: Constant experiments with subject, materials, color, and style make his canvases crackle with rare electricity. Consequently, this two-decade show celebrates a genuinely unique achievement. It also provides a moment to reflect on what might have been, had Ofili’s older hip-hop cousin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, anticipated some of the Englishman’s exquisite control, ripe sensuality, and outright doggedness.

The New Museum’s curating team of Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton have deftly arrayed 30 major paintings, four sculptures, and 181 watercolors over three floors. Featuring several distinct bodies of work, “Night and Day” charms and enraptures by turns yet doesn’t flinch at presenting the very paintings that gave Ofili tabloid name recognition. Among these are powerhouse canvases like Affrodizzia and Monkey Magic — Sex, Money and Drugs, mixed-media portraits made from a signature combination of acrylic, oil, resin, map pins, glitter, and the aforementioned dung (a material the artist picked up after a residency in Zimbabwe). Also included among 10 other paintings that represent the artist’s output from the contentious 1990s is The Holy Virgin Mary herself: an icon-like image of a large-lipped, wide-nosed black Madonna draped in a blue tunic on a gold background, with putti made from collaged female bottoms, plus clumps of pachyderm shit that make up the Virgin’s exposed right breast (as well as the painting’s feet). Far from defacing Ofili’s Madonna, the turds turn her body voluptuously earthy. In case anyone is still shocked, it’s worth recalling Rembrandt’s 17th-century job description: “I find rubies and emeralds in a dung heap.”

A batch of related works Ofili made for the 2003 British Pavilion in Venice marshal similar painterly elements. Made using the restricted palette of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the five paintings on view here create an immersive environment that pulsates in shades of red, black, and green. An abridged version of the pavilion designed by Ofili’s friend David Adjaye, these canvases feature jungle landscapes populated by embracing couples, tropical greenery, and a repeating starburst motif — as seen in works like Triple Beam Dreamer and Afro Love and Envy. What Ofili depicted in these pictures is a 2-D vision of a pan-Africanist Eden. What he aesthetically engineered is an enveloping experience akin to hearing bass-heavy reggae with surround-sound speakers turned up to 11. In comparison, most contemporary pictures from the era look like the synesthetic equivalent of Kraftwerk.

The last of Ofili’s works to incorporate painted dots, map pins, and elephant dung, the Venice Biennale series signified a major triumph, but also a profound shift. Change came in two ways. First, Ofili left London for the Caribbean heaven of Trinidad in 2005. Second, he quit the image sampling and magpie ornamentation that characterized his previous canvases in order to make “less complex” work that tapped into “a process of looking that was slower.” The results — contrary to sunshiny expectations — were his blue paintings: nightscapes loaded with blue-black shapes and figures that literally drift in and out of visibility. Hung in a darkened gallery on the museum’s third floor, these paintings vibrate dramatically according to the viewer’s movements. For the minimalist-minded, there are connections to be made to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings and Rothko’s black-on-black monochromes. I, for one, prefer to think of these pictures as closer to viewing Monet’s water lilies — by moonlight.

The museum’s topmost, fourth-floor galleries are given over to Ofili’s more recent works, which feature dramatic color combinations in sinuous compositions depicting elongated Matisse-like figures disporting against Art Deco–like backgrounds. Bright, fluid, flat, and often gauzy, Ofili’s newest dreamscapes engage mythological narratives and religious figures — subject matter the artist has incorporated into his work in much the same way he once used dung and clippings. Paintings like the knockout Ovid-Destiny and Ovid-Actaeon were made for a joint commission for both the U.K.’s Royal Opera House and the National Gallery; their theme is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Other works, like the orange, teal, and purple Raising of Lazarus, take on art history directly, with a veteran’s confidence. An image that not only echoes past versions of the painting, from Rembrandt to van Gogh, Lazarus and other works like it in “Night and Day” appear to literally embrace and consume all of art history.

El Greco, Les Fauves, Gauguin, Picasso’s Blue Period, late Matisse, German Expressionism, Yves Klein, Romare Bearden, Robert Rauschenberg. Like lessons learned during Giuliani-time, this artist train is not in vain, but rather marks stages in the development of a painter who, as this retrospective amply demonstrates, became a modern master. Any remaining Ofili detractors ought to have their eyes examined.