Nearly 20 years after it ignited a political scandal of biblical proportions at the Brooklyn Museum, Chris Ofili’s spectacular painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) has entered the permanent collection of a different New York City museum. Yesterday, Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina reported that hedge fund manager and Museum of Modern Art trustee Steven A. Cohen had gifted the painting to the institution. When it last changed hands at auction, in 2015, it set a record for a work by Ofili, selling for $4.6 million. It was most recently on public display in New York City as part of Ofili’s 2014 retrospective at the New Museum, where it had its own dedicated security guard.
In the late 1990s, the painting was included in the traveling exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, which showcased work from the collection of Charles Saatchi. When the show arrived in New York at the Brooklyn Museum, it was met with immediate opposition centering on “The Holy Virgin Mary”; Catholic groups objected to the painting’s depiction of the Virgin Mary alongside pornographic collage elements and elephant dung (a staple of Ofili’s paintings of that period). Fueled by tabloid reports mischaracterizing Ofili’s work, the scandal escalated, and a 72-year-old man even attacked the work, spraying white paint on it (the painting was quickly restored). In response, then-mayor of New York City Rudolph Guiliani threatened to withhold the Brooklyn Museum’s $7 million in municipal funding.
“You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion,” Guiliani said. “The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick.” The mayor admitted that he had not seen the work in person, only in the exhibition catalogue, perhaps accounting for his grossly inaccurate description of the painting. The mayor eventually abandoned his campaign to have the Brooklyn Museum evicted from its city-owned property over the painting.
In addition to its controversial past, its record-setting auction price, and now its status as one of more than 30 pieces by Ofili in MoMA’s collection, “The Holy Virgin Mary” has the unusual distinction of being one of the few artworks about which Donald Trump has publicly stated his opinion. At the height of the Sensation scandal, Trump — who was contemplating a run for president in 2000 — weighed in on the controversy, parroting many of the same misconceptions articulated by Giuliani.
“As President, I would ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts stops funding of this sort,” Trump told the New York Daily News; the exhibition did not receive NEA funding. “It’s not art. It’s absolutely gross, degenerate stuff. It shouldn’t be funded by government.”
Now, Cohen — who donated $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration last year — has gifted Ofili’s painting to MoMA, bringing the work back to New York for good.