The New Yorker’s May 11th issue includes a profile of the sculptor Charles Ray, tracking his life and career and peculiarities. One small section of the piece is devoted to the controversy around his piece “Huck and Jim,” a sculpture of the characters from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The sculpture depicts a 9-foot-tall Jim, a grown-man runaway slave, standing protectively next to Huck, a fourteen year-old-boy, as the boy bends over in a scooping position. They are both naked, as they are in the novel, and Jim’s penis is large and unavoidable. Ray began “Huck and Jim” in 2009 when the Whitney asked him to propose a sculpture to go in a public plaza in front of their then-planned, now-newly-opened building downtown. Ray felt that the characters would be a great fit for a museum of American art, as he believes Huck Finn is a definitive piece of American art.
The Whitney’s director and chief curator were initially supportive of the work, but became leery as time went on. They worried that the image of a naked black man together with a naked white boy, no matter how innocent or historical, would be offensive to passersby, who wouldn’t necessarily know or care about the context. The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, told Ray that the sculpture could go anywhere on the Whitney’s property except the plaza, but Ray was unwilling to compromise on the location. So the Whitney passed on the sculpture, which now sits semi-finished and homeless in Charles Ray’s studio in Santa Monica.