The Whitney Rejected This Masterpiece Sculpture

Photo: Art Institute of Chicago/Charles Ray Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

For all its promise, the new Whitney Museum of American Art is and will be marked by an invisible original sin that can't be lifted. That sin? An aesthetic one that perfectly mirrors America's hysteria and mania around race, what D.H. Lawrence called the fear of our "old, hoary, monstrous ... unspeakably terrible ... and snow white ... abstract end."

After boldly commissioning eminent American artist Charles Ray to design a sculpture to be permanently installed on the public plaza outside the new museum, the Whitney blinked and declined Ray’s proposal. According to Calvin Tomkins, the museum feared the work would "offend non-museumgoing visitors." And just like that, a gigantic chance was lost. The proposed work, since made and exhibited in Chicago's Art Institute, is not only a 21st-century sculptural masterpiece, it embodies so much of America’s past and current struggles that had it been placed in the front of this museum at this time, it might have been a beacon, a lightning rod, a second Statue of Liberty. Adding layers of paradox to this tragedy is the fact that the work is a classically traditional Western figurative sculpture in the vein of the ancient Greek and Roman art widely worshipped as beautiful. Here is Realism, incredible skill, fealty to canonical form and academic history. On top of all that, the subject matter is totally familiar, even banal or boring: two large, naked figures, both male — nothing not already seen in probably 100 other American museums. Yet Ray's public sculpture crackles and fractures with historical counter-force and presents a fact so shattering that the Whitney decided the work could not be exhibited in public. Let's see why.

The figures are big, looming over us at about one-and-a-half times natural size. As realistic as they are, and as much as they command space and attention, they also feel abstracted, once-removed. At no point do the two figures actually touch; in 100 years, some committee or collector could separate them. Yet here they're locked in cosmic orbit with one another, almost inseparable. A standing man towers over us at about nine feet. He's probably about 40 years old, fit, but not a colossus. Still, he's something of an augur, perhaps owning to how he peers into a distance over our heads as if we're not here. Like he's been swallowed up in something we can't see. He extends his right hand over the bending figure of the boy who is looking into his own open hand, or down to the ground. He's lost, absorbed in something. Ray says this figure "reaches down into the river and pulls up a frog." Either way, nothing untoward, freakish, or flashy is happening. The standing man's hand over the boy could be seen as a blessing gesture. For me, the small of the boy's back seems like a vulnerable point, as if injury could be inflicted with very little force, especially given the distracted, rapt way he stoops, oblivious to the world around him. The standing man's consciousness, meanwhile, is split, conflicted, weighed-on, pathos-filled.  He is far more aware of the boy than the boy is of him. Still, however academic the realism, neither figure feels Greek or God-like; the body language and type are familiar, the hair is contemporary, expressions are commonplace. There's a sense that the fugues have been fashioned by 3-D printing or something that makes the surfaces feel digital, pixelated. Also, unlike classical sculptures on pedestals these figures stand on the ground in our world. Maybe due to their bigness and the fact that they're cast in stainless steel and painted stark white, however, an enigmatic otherness still exudes. The sculpture is neither sensual and translucent, like marble, nor reflective and cold, like steel. These figures are in limbo.

This is where the hysteria sets in. I can't recall a contemporary artist better electrifying a work of art with its title — activating a metaphysical interstice. The sculpture is called Huck and Jim.

Of course. We are looking at a representation of Mark Twain's famous characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The man is Jim Watson, escaping Missouri for the free territory of Illinois and Ohio. Huck is the novel's namesake, a small-town Missouri boy running from his drunkard father who wants to kill him for a treasure found in a previous book. In the middle of the night, on Jackson's Island, in the Mississippi River, Huck finds Jim hiding from slave-catchers who will either kill him or chain him to claim the $800 reward for his return (about $25,000 in today's money). As told by Twain, Huck is escaping but looking for adventure and fun. He's no angel. All during the book, we read of how he wrestles with his conscience, thinking that the legally and morally right thing to do is to return this piece of property to its rightful owner. By the story's end, Huck deigns to let Jim go because, as he puts it, "I knowed he was white inside." Thus, Huck is the hero of the book, Jim the cause of his heroism and redemption. We know that Huck will eventually have access to the money he found. We don't know what happens to Jim: if he'll be able to return to Missouri for his wife and two children, if he's killed making his way back from Arkansas, where Huck steered him in order to seek adventure.
The hysteria comes from Ray flipping the script. This is not Huck's story any longer. It is Jim's. Or whatever version of Jim’s story could be truly authored by a white sculptor. Huck is depicted in the privileged precincts of the imagination, stooping to study something, lost in speculation, surrendering mindfulness to wonder and the luxury of marveling. Ray brilliantly reflects his callowness by obscuring his identity. It's impossible to see his face without lying down on the floor. Or stooping over and peering up at it — which puts you in the exact same position as the figure you're lost looking at, lost in aesthetic wonder. When you do get under Huck, you also notice that he has no pubic hair, another sign of youthfulness or innocence.

Jim is the lodestar of this sculpture, the locus of psychological and physical magnitude. This isn't his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's his "Penal Colony," his Inferno; in modern parlance, a state of terrorism. Jim is running for his life, for the fate of his family. Indeed, as a result of Huck's lust for abstract adventure, he brings Jim with him deeper into slave country rather than just crossing the river into a free state. Even when they reach the point in the river where the Ohio River branches north from the Mississippi, Huck misses the turn in the fog — and continues south. As a result, Jim is captured twice. Both times, he barely escapes. As seen in Ray's sculpture, Jim is a man thinking about something serious; in the words of artist Kara Walker, "his inner plantation ... this grand place where to some extent, we knew our place; a place where one is whole ... and knows what to fight against, or what not to fight against, or who to obey, or how to hold on to oneself in the face of oppression." This is Jim's Gethsemane — an in-between moment of wanting this cup to be taken from him, even as he knows that in America, there's no hope of this happening. In this geography of the damned, Huck is the Pontius Pilate; someone who "washes his hands" of someone else's fate even as this tragic act binds his fate to that of the other. As James Baldwin wrote, "Whoever debases others debases himself." All this felt ambiguity, confusion, innocence, violence, betrayal, and grand defiance radiates from Huck and Jim. Here Huck may be well-meaning and innocent, but he is still the racist who needs the black man more than he is needed. And we're back to that white "old, hoary, monstrous, abstract fear" that the old codes will go away. As Baldwin writes, "It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

And then there is the second kind of in-betweenness at work. The standing man is black; the stooping boy is white; the man's genitals are large and uncircumcised; the boy's penis is small and without pubic hair; Ray is white.

Sexual racial tension is old in America, and deep. In 1851, Herman Melville pictured Ishmael sleeping in the sheltering arms of dark-skinned Queequeg and having torn feelings — later saying, "I must turn idolater." Twain has Jim call Huck "honey," and Huck talks about how "we was always naked, day and night.” American shadows become visible. In his famous 1948 essay on the relationship between the boy runaway and the slave runaway, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," Leslie Fiedler writes of the relationship as an archetypal case of American literature’s fetish, so to speak, of “chaste male love as the ultimate emotional experience” — a love not quite so chaste of mind as we are typically taught, he writes, even putting aside what he calls the “shackling cliché” of “the white man’s sexual envy of the Negro male” and the underlying fear, “white America’s nightmare that someday … he will be rejected.”  “Unwittingly, we are possessed in childhood by the characters and their undiscriminated meaning, and it is difficult for us to dissociate them without a sense of disbelief. What! These household figures clues to our subtlest passions!” he writes. “In each generation we play out the impossible mythos, and we live to see our children play it, the white boy and the black we can discover wrestling affectionately on any American street, along which they will walk in adulthood, eyes averted from each other, unwilling to touch. The dream recedes; the immaculate passion and the astonished reconciliation become a memory, and less, a regret, at last the unrecgonized motifs of a child's book. 'It's too good to be true, Honey,' Jim says to Huck. 'It's too good to be true.'" This is the mine field too far that Ray's Huck and Jim occupies.

And yet no outcry erupted when the sculpture was installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, part of a tremendous exhibition of Ray's later work. Perhaps because it was inside a public institution called a museum, within the confines of rooms known as galleries, where people know to allow ambiguity, nakedness, sexual tension, and unstable subject matter, even around race.  

In his sculpture, Ray hits us with visual fact, the belief that form carries meaning, and dispenses with all the familiar distancing tropes that keep stories safe and pathology at bay. Other than the operatic scale, there's no romanticizing of subject, no nostalgia, sentimentalizing, myth, or fantasy. No pallative parable or moral. Just the bare facts. This is a glyph for the complexities of reality. Twain’s tale was set in 1853; Ray's story is set in an eternal present and is nonfiction. Here, in Wallace Stevens's words, it's "a constant cry against an old order."