This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue (vol. 58, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current.
The papers of Renee V. Cox (b. 1956) contain photographs, academic records, awards, exhibition files, printed materials, correspondence, diaries, sketchbooks, and datebooks. The datebooks record rigorous tennis, skiing, surfing, and scuba diving routines, revealing the relationship between Black aesthetics, Black agency, and the theme of athleticism in Cox’s work, epitomized by her superhero alter-ego, Rajé. The controversial US reception of her oeuvre, moreover, is documented through correspondence and newspaper and magazine articles, demonstrating that critics hypersexualized Cox’s nude body, simultaneously fetishizing and fearing it. A late 1970s photograph of Cox with her husband and in-laws at a naturist camp in Corsica, France, however, captures her understanding of a nudity that is neither pornographic nor a political statement, but rather grounded in physical and psychological freedom.
Correspondence, call sheets, and photographic images published in full-color glossy magazines from the 1980s and 1990s expose the influence of fashion and advertising on the artist’s practice. In Paris in the 1980s, Cox was a highly sought-after fashion photographer. She attended haute couture fashion shows and styled and shot supermodels, including Iman, for major magazines. Cox recalls being the only Black female fashion photographer working in the French capital, where she presented active Black bodies in predominantly white spaces: in parks, at the gym, on the beach, and underwater. The papers demonstrate that she distorted select images using Mylar. This early practice of bodily distortion would evolve with technology and later become central to her oeuvre.
Address books divulge that upon returning to New York from an extended stay in Paris in 1983, Cox engaged a community of Black artists including Lyle Ashton Harris and Lorna Simpson. A 1993 invitation to an open studio reveals that she shared a work space with Harris, her former classmate in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. That year, catalyzed by her experience as the first pregnant woman enrolled in the program, Cox initiated her Yo Mama series. At the height of the US culture wars, Cox turned the camera on her own nude body, challenging preconceived notions of race, class, religion, and gender presented in the Western canon.
Printed material in the papers related to the exhibition of her work in Black Male at the Whitney (1994), Bad Girls at the New Museum (1994), and Rajé: A Superhero at Christinerose Gallery (1998), demonstrate that Cox was poised for critical and commercial success. Conversely, in 2001 Cox’s scantily clad image was strewn above the fold on the cover of newspapers and magazines, accompanied by headlines like “We Say Enlightening, Giuliani Says Disgusting.” Exhibited without controversy at the Venice Biennale years prior, Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996), in which she posed nude as Jesus Christ, was now featured at the Brooklyn Museum, where New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani declared it sacrilegious. The papers illuminate Giuliani’s campaign to prevent the work from being presented in any New York museum that received public funds. Cox publicly defended her artistic intentions, inciting critical backlash from some art institutions, hate mail, and even death threats. The artist never posed nude again.
Erin Jenoa Gilbert is the curator of African American manuscripts at the Archives of American Art.