The Dung-Adorned Madonna That Giuliani Once Tried to Ban Has Been Donated to MoMA by Steve Cohen

An artwork that once sparked controversy is now joining the New York museum's prestigious collection.

Chris Ofili, Holy Virgin Mary (1996).
Photo: Courtesy of Saatchi Gallery

A painting that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once tried to ban from the Brooklyn Museum now has a permanent home in New York City. Billionaire hedge fund manager and mega-collector Steve Cohen has donated Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, according to Bloomberg.

The painting, which depicts a black Virgin Mary beside elephant dung, set the record at auction for the artist at Christie’s London in June 2015, when it realized £2.9 million ($4.5 million) presumably with Cohen as the buyer. The consignment to the Christie’s sale was made by Australian collector David Walsh, owner of the Museum of New and Old Art in Tasmania. Walsh purchased the work from British collector Charles Saatchi who bought it directly from the artist.

Steve Cohen, courtesy of Point72.

The painting will perhaps always be associated with a controversy that erupted when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum’s seminal 1999 show of Young British Artists titled “Sensation.” Then-Mayor Giuliani blasted the painting as an insult to Catholics because it contains several lumps of elephant dung, including two at the base, supporting the painting.

Giuliani threatened to cut off all subsidies to the museum and evict it from its city-owned building, but leaders refused to give in and the work remained on view. Giuliani finally abandoned his battle the following year, and the museum, in turn, dropped a First Amendment lawsuit it had brought against the mayor. The painting returned to New York in 2014, when was featured in a major retrospective of Ofili’s work at the New Museum titled “Night and Day.”

MoMA’s chief curator Ann Temkin told Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina that the nearly 20-year-old controversy doesn’t diminish the work’s merits. ”Setting aside its history and notoriety, it’s a magnificent painting,” she said. The museum will add The Holy Virgin Mary to more than 30 works by Ofili already in its permanent collection.

In an email to artnet News, Temkin said the painting is “an extraordinary addition to our collection,” and calling it “a singularly important work by an artist whose paintings are among the best of his generation.”

Cohen, who is a trustee of the museum, gave $50 million to MoMA’s capital campaign last year, through the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

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