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Robert Mapplethorpe
“Jennifer Jakobson, 1980 Leather Crotch”, 1980© The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The greatest American artists that straddle sex

Don't avert your eyes – here's the top ten artists who have made NSFW their life's work

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. This week, State of Sex takes an all-encompassing look at sexuality, gender and all the flavours of the American rainbow.

The United States of America has been home to many significant and influential movements over time: the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and not forgetting the sexual revolution. So even while Europe has been the source of much progressivity – try Meret Oppenheim’s Object (1936), a homage to cunnilingus, or Rodin’s many erotic sculptures – the land of the free has also been the origin of much summer loving. Sixteenth century Italy may have the cool eroticism of Bronzino, ancient India may have the great Hindu sex text Kama Sutra, and England may have the 102 names that British artist Tracey Emin sewed into her tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, but America is home to The Guild of Erotic Artists. It is the country that invented the glow in the dark Karma Sutra – a real piece of art – but it is also home to many forward thinking artists who use sex as their specialist subject.

So we’ve decided to lay sex in American art bare, with a list of our favourite American artists that have straddled and grappled with the two-backed beast. Just don’t say Moana Lisa.


The provocative and innovative American sculptor Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris on Christmas day. Romantic origins, but her work was quite the opposite, becoming known for its sexually-explicit and traumatic nature, which was inspired by the childhood discovery that her English governess was her father’s mistress. For the piece "Destruction of the Father" (1974), Bourgeois cast hunks of mutton and beef in plaster and then covered them with a layer of latex, to devastating effect.


A Wall Street broker before embarking upon his career as an artist, Jeff Koons became internationally acclaimed as a divisive exponent of Neo-Geo, an American movement established through appropriation and parody. In the 1990s, Koons took an erotic turn with the series Made in Heaven, in which the artist made extremely explicit works depicting his sexual relationship with his wife, the Italian porn-star Cicciolina. They show the couple in x-rated poses, while referencing the artists such as Edouard Manet, to examine the place of sexuality in visual culture.


American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of sexually explicit gay male imagery, depicting scenes of underground bondage and sado-masochistic BDSM. Mapplethorpe's male nudes focus almost entirely on genitalia, acting as a fetishistic view of the male body part, where the subjects' faces are never shown, and much of the body is likely to be cropped from view. He died of AIDS at the tragically young age of 42.


Taking influence from the Japanese shunga paintings from many centuries ago, known for their graphic depiction of sex, Jeff Faerber gave his own take, but with Western figures and modern sex toys. With hilariously dry titles like “A brief respite in a discussion of Keynesian economics as it relates to GDP”, the Brooklyn-based artist captures these no-holds-barred scenes in a messy celebration of sex.


Nan Goldin began taking black-and-white photographs as a teenager in Boston, Massachusetts, with her early work a celebration of the drag queen subcultural lifestyle to which she belonged. Goldin’s images are intensely personal, sexual, transgressive, documenting mainly what she called her “tribe”: family, friends, and lovers, in vivid colour photography. Her work was once censored in Brazil due to some photographs that depicted sexual acts next to children. Read our recent long-read with the photographer, here


Bill Clinton may famously claimed to “have not had sexual relations with that woman”, but San Francisco-based artist Justine Lai, ever the contrarian, made a series called Join or Die, in which she painted herself having sex with every US President in history. One at a time, she explores the humorous and humanizing notion of depicting herself in the throes of passion with every American leader, with some of the paintings featuring not one, but two Bushes. Lai describes "inserting herself" into the timeline of Presidential authority to subvert it, not simply depicting Presidential authority inserting itself into her.


Ann Hirsch is an artist who tackles the issue of sex in the most modern of ways. The 29-year-old Brooklyn video and performance artist has done a two-year stint as Caroline, a YouTube cam whore with almost two million hits, a cybersex play that’s set in an AOL chatroom in the early, not-so-barren days of the internet, as well as drawings, prints, and sculptures that explore the minefield that is known as adolescent sexuality.


After beginning his career working on gay porn sets, Los Angeles photographer Jeff Burton reveals the everyday aspect of adult entertainment. Embracing a role as both insider and outsider, Burton’s photographs exist in a space between fantasy and reality defying any clear definition or category. Nude bodies become abstract forms, fragmented and piecemeal, often placed at the margins of the frame, as if to recall that these erotic undertones are marginalised by society itself. The sexual act is frozen and broken up.


Going along the lines of Tracey Emin, Ava Gerber’s early-90s New York exhibitions included things like an installation of her own underwear signed by every man that she had ever slept with, and an extremely provocative portrait of Gerber having sex with an African American man, while dangling a sign from her mouth saying: “Happy Birthday Daddy”. Here, sex really is used as a weapon.


Andy Warhol once said: “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time”, he also said: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.” For all his supposed antipathy toward the act and attitudes about it, Warhol was clearly obsessed by sex. He identified as gay and his work often drew heavily on his participation in the LGBT community. To add a pique of controversy, one day Warhol is said to have confessed to his biographer in 1980, at the age of fifty-two, that he was still a virgin.