"Huck and Jim" in DeSantis Land

Charles Ray, Huck and Jim, 2014, as installed at Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla. Collection of Lisa and Steven Tannanbaum

A version of Charles Ray's Huck and Jim, conceived for the Whitney Museum's plaza, is now on view at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach. It's the first time Ray's sculpture has been shown outdoors, as a work of public art. Yet the Norton's installation philosophy might better be described as hidden in plain sight. It raises raises questions about self-censorship in Ron DeSantis' Florida ("where woke goes to die"). 

Not that self-censorship isn't an issue in blue states. The Whitney Museum commissioned Ray to produce a sculpture for the plaza outside Renzo Piano's lower Manhattan building. This was the first time a major New York museum had chosen a Los Angeles artist for such a prominent and permanent installation. Ray's response was Huck and Jim, a 9-foot-high double statue of characters from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The Whitney approved the sculpture, even after Ray warned that it could be controversial. But the museum ultimately balked at displaying the work as intended, between the entrance and the touristy terminus of the High Line. It was reported that the Whitney was concerned that over-life-size nude figures of a Black man and a white boy would confuse the less art-savvy tourists. Ray rejected the museum's offer to display the sculpture elsewhere on its site.

The Whitney's concerns weren't entirely hypothetical. Ray had drawn fire from conservatives even for his advisory role on Frank Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial. Justin Shubow of the grandly titled and otherwise irrelevant National Civic Art Society blasted Ray as "an artist whose work sexualizes children and is obscene." As evidence he cited Ray's Boy With Frog, charging that the "bumpy and veined" frog "is phallic—an adult penis in the hand of the boy."

Charles Ray's Boy with Frog, Martin Puryear's That Profile (distant center), and Aristide Malliol's L'Air (middle right) on the Getty Center plaza
A version of Boy With Frog, in the white finish intended for the Whitney Huck and Finn, has been on view at the Getty Center since 2011. It's installed on the stairs leading to the museum entrance. Everyone who visits the Getty sees it, without any controversy I'm aware of.

The Whitney rebuff led to Huck and Jim being lionized as a culture war martyr. Jerry Saltz termed the Whitney's action as an "original sin that can't be lifted." Huck and Jim was "not only a 21st-century sculptural masterpiece," wrote Saltz, "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." 
Charles Ray, Huck and Jim. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago/Charles Ray. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Other museums were quick to show Huck and Jim, albeit indoors. The sculpture debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago in its 2015 Ray exhibition. The AIC has since acquired an editioned Huck and Jim in stainless steel. Lisa and Steve Tannanbaum bought another steel version and lent it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's the Tannanbaum Huck and Jim that is now on view at the Norton. 

If you can find it. Ray's sculpture is installed by itself, surrounded by tall hedges, in a garden "room" within the Norton's contemporary sculpture garden. Here's a typical view, should you happen to be looking in the right direction. The two figures face towards Olive Ave., but that's car traffic with not many pedestrians, and the sight lines are also obstructed by by lush plantings. 

Huck and Jim is currently the most celebrated sculpture in the Norton garden. You might expect there to be signage directing visitors to this important artwork on temporary loan (and yes, maybe warning off the easily offended). Nope. There is a label on the ground near the sculpture, but obviously you won't see that unless you find the sculpture in the first place. The label provides a bare minimum of context (and doesn't mention the Whitney, which is coincidentally lending the Norton a group of early 20th-century masterworks). 

Florida's Governor DeSantis has taken on wokeness and the College Board's African American advanced placement course. As Jelani Cobb put it, "The state's intent seems to be to provide white Floridians, from a young age, with a version of history they can be comfortable with, regardless of whether it's true." 

The Norton label for Huck and Jim couldn't be accused of making anyone feel bad about chattel slavery ("social restrictions"). Of course, Huck and Jim is not "true"—the title announces it as a statue of fictional characters. Like much of Ray's art, it trades in cognitive dissonance. Monuments have meanings, and usually simplistic ones. The viewer of Huck and Jim is led to search for an explanation that isn't simple and may not be forthcoming.

While I was there, a school group toured the garden with a docent. I was curious to hear what the docent would say about Huck and Jim. The answer was nothing—the children never saw Ray's work.


Anonymous said…
So odd that this great sculpture is serving as nothing more than a garden gnome at this Florida museum.
Anonymous said…
It’s a garden sculpture now because museums are scared to exhibit it. Yikes !!