8 American Artists Whose Controversial Art Shocked the World

pollock controversial art
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles/Number 11, 1952

Controversial art has found many ways to outrage, disgust and intrigue throughout history. Whether it be a brazen political statement or a radical redefinition of art itself, certain pieces throughout the history of art have shaken up the art world. Discover 8 American artists whose controversial art shocked the world with Artsper!

1. Andres Serrano

serrano controversial art
Andres Serrano, Impression (Piss Christ), 1987

Perhaps the most controversial artist on this list is New York-born photographer Andres Serrano. Serrano is known for his photographs that challenge societal issues surrounding sex and religion. His controversial artwork Impression (Piss Christ) depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine. Furthermore, it is notably the most criticized. 

Accusations of blasphemy were made against the artist, which as a Catholic he vehemently denied, arguing misinterpretation. The controversy escalated to him losing funding and even death threats.

2. Robert Mapplethorpe

mapplethorpe controversial art
Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe Rubberman, 1978

New York based photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was famously interested in the city’s underground queer BDSM scene. Throughout his career, he took hundreds of pictures of this community. The artist’s photographs during the artist’s lifetime were heavily criticized for their explicit sexual content, sometimes even branded as pornographic. Furthermore, a conversation developed around whether his controversial art objectified and fetishized its subjects, often African American men. 

However, much of the controversy would come after Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDs in 1989. In 1988, shortly before the artist’s death, an exhibition titled “The Perfect Life”, a comprehensive retrospective spanning 25 years of his career, began touring the country. After several months, it was met with widespread national backlash and was cancelled. This cancellation served as a catalyst for one of the most prominent debates in art history about censorship in relation to government funding, with the story making headline news for over a year.

3. Andy Warhol

warhol controversial art
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962

Today, Andy Warhol’s paintings of Campbell’s soup cans are an iconic symbol of Modern art and Pop Art, leaving behind a legacy that has inspired thousands of artists across a variety of art styles. However, when the artist debuted the piece in 1962, composed of 32 small silk screen sprints each depicting a different variety of soup, the outcome was controversy in the art world. 

With fine art at the time being an exclusive institution, questions arose over whether the piece even be considered art. The piece, with its mundane, commercial subject matter and apparent lack of depth, was far removed from the other art movements of the era. Eventually, however, the piece would be the catalyst for the mainstream success of the immensely popular Pop Art movement.

4. Jackson Pollock

pollock 2 controversial art
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles/Number 11, 1952

Artist Jackson Pollock faced significant criticism from the art world regarding his innovative work. His controversial art style consisted of him pouring paint directly from the can, a technique known as “dripping”, over a large canvas lying horizontally on the floor. These huge, wildy abstract pieces, in theory an expression of the inner self of the artist, became the foreground of the Abstract Expressionism movement and paved the way for conceptual art as a genre. However, like Warhol, Pollock’s work faced intense scrutiny, with the radically different style facing accusations of lack of technique and depth. 

Today Pollock’s enormous contribution to the art world is widely recognized. However, even in the 21st century there remains some who question whether or not this style of abstract art should be considered fine art.

5. Renée Cox

Renée Cox, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, 1996

The Jamaican-American artist Renée Cox is known for her works reimaging classical religious scenes with black men and women, a comment on the lack of racial and gender representation in these works despite the prevalence of black Catholics. One such work is her 1996 piece Yo Mama’s Last Supper, a reimagining of Leonarda da Vinci’s Last Supper, composed of 5 photograph panels. The center panel depicts a nude black woman as Jesus, while the other disciples are black men, with the exception of Judas. 

In 2001, the piece sparked controversy when New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani branded the piece anti-Catholic and “attacking people’s ethnicity.” The then-mayor called for a governing panel to be established to assess the decency standards for all art shown in publicly-funded museums in the city.

6. Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953

In his experimental piece Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg wanted to explore whether an artwork could be created from removing markings rather than adding them. He asked his friend, Dutch artist Willem de Kooning, who at the time was extremely successful, for one of his new drawings and proceeded to erase it, after adding the frame and a caption. 

The conceptual and controversial artwork drew polarizing reviews. Some appreciated the concept behind the piece, while others branded the erasure as purely vandalism. The role of de Kooning in providing the work only further complicated the debate.

7. Richard Serra

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981

In 1981, Richard Serra’s public art installation Tilted Arc was erected in Foley Federal Plaza, Manhattan. The Post-Minimalist conceptual piece consisted of a 12 foot high, 120 foot long steel plate that cut through the plaza. Serra designed the piece to force the spectator to go out of their way to review and appreciate the space. However it faced enormous backlash from the general public. It was criticized for its unappealing appearance, apparently ruining the view and being an irritating obstacle in the path. 

After the sculpture’s removal in 1989, Serra took legal action against the government, saying that its removal was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. This sparked a huge debate over the moral rights of artists and influenced later government policies. Serra eventually lost the battle and the work remains in 3 pieces at a storage facility in Maryland. At the artist’s insistence, the piece will never be displayed anywhere other than its original site.

8. Richard Prince

Richard Prince, The exhibition “New Portraits“, 2014

Often referred to as the “king of appropriation”, Richard Prince’s 2014 exhibition “New Portraits” was met with significant controversy. The exhibition featured 38 portraits taken directly from his Instagram feed and included topless images of models, artists, and celebrities. The artist has frequently explored the concept of artistic ownership in his work. However, some found the pieces went too far and were exploitative- including some of the photograph’s subjects.

Several subjects took him to court over the issue, with Prince generally winning the cases or settling outside of court. Others expressed a fear of threatening legal action due to the artist’s blue-chip status. After seeing the pieces selling for around $100,000, a few even began selling prints themselves as an act of reappropriation!

Controversial Art: A Talking Point

While perspectives on these controversial artists are hugely polarizing, we can all agree that these divisive pieces start important conversations in the art world. From debates around censorship and complex legal battles to the birth of entire artistic movements, these pieces are necessary for the progression of art. What do you think of these controversial artworks?

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