New Saint Laurent exhibition celebrates Madonna’s controversial 1990s ‘Sex’ book

Curated by Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello, the Miami exhibition explores the Steven Meisel-shot ‘Sex’ book by Madonna and its liberated images of sexual self-expression as it turns 30

Madonna in Sex book biting man’s nipple
Madonna ‘Sex’ photographed by Steven Meisel, part of Saint Laurent Rive Droite Miami exhibition
(Image credit: Courtesy of Saint Laurent)

Opening in Miami yesterday evening (29 November 2022), a new exhibition from Saint Laurent – curated by creative director Anthony Vaccarello – celebrates three decades since the release of Sex, Madonna’s culture-shifting photography book that cemented the musician’s status as pop’s foremost provocateur. ‘I was called a whore, a witch, a heretic and the devil,’ she recently recounted on Instagram of the reaction to the 1992 publication, with the libidinous Steven Meisel-shot tome the subject of conservative protest and prompts to boycott from the Vatican. 

Conversely, it sold over 150,000 copies on the day of its release, and went to number one on The New York Times bestseller list; since, it has been deemed one of pop culture’s most influential artefacts, a pre-cursor to the sexually charged imagery of contemporary pop. ‘I want to liberate America – free us all of our hang-ups,’ Madonna said in 1993. 

‘You're welcome,’ she said this past week on Instagram.

Saint Laurent celebrate Madonna’s ‘Sex’ book in Miami

Madonna in leather bondage wear in Sex book

Madonna, Sex, photographed by Steven Meisel, part of Saint Laurent Rive Droite Miami exhibition

(Image credit: Courtesy of Saint Laurent)

The exhibition, which runs as part of Art Basel Miami Beach 2022, collates a number of Meisel’s photographs from the book, blown up into large-format images for the occasion. It also coincides with the re-release of the book by Saint Laurent Rive Droite – the house’s ‘creative and cultural destination’, which has stores in Paris and Los Angeles – and will be on show in an ephemeral beachside gallery during the contemporary art fair. 

‘Upon its release in 1992, Madonna’s provocative book became a controversial sensation around the globe, due to its bold erotic content and liberated views of sexual self-expression,’ says the house. ‘Thirty years later, Sex remains a seminal artefact of culture and style, having paved the way for countless artists.’

Back of Madonna standing on windowsill in just white vest from Sex book

Madonna, Sex, photographed by Steven Meisel, part of Saint Laurent Rive Droite Miami exhibition

(Image credit: Courtesy of Saint Laurent)

The book, which was art-directed by Harper’s Bazaar’s Fabien Baron and featured appearances from Naomi Campbell, Isabella Rossellini and Big Daddy Kane, coincided with the release of Erotica, the artist’s fifth studio album (the record was released the day prior to the book). Like the album, the book features appearances from Madonna’s alter-ego Mistress Dita, which was inspired by the actress Dita Parlo; elsewhere, she is pictured hitchhiking nude on an American street (cigarette in mouth, handbag in hand), or clad in leather BDSM wear. ‘Everything you read is a fantasy,’ she says in the book’s introduction. 

But she also used the book to comment on safe sex – its release came in the midst of the Aids epidemic – with the tome’s exterior reminiscent of a condom wrapper. ‘This book does not condone unsafe sex,’ she wrote. ‘If I were to make my dreams real, I would certainly use condoms. Safe sex saves lives, pass it on.’

Nude Madonna hitchiking with cigarette and handbag in sex book

Madonna, Sex, photographed by Steven Meisel, part of Saint Laurent Rive Droite Miami exhibition

(Image credit: Courtesy of Saint Laurent)

The exhibition itself will feature the opportunity to purchase the re-edition of the book by original publisher Callaway (800 copies in total), alongside limited-edition T-shirts and tote bags. Madonna will also sign a small number of copies of the book, which will be available via auction in the coming months. Funds from the auction will go to the artist’s Raising Malawi fund.

The Saint Laurent beachfront gallery will be free to visit for anyone over age 18, from 29 November – 4 December 2022.

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Nude men with Madonna in silver dress in Sex book

Madonna ‘Sex’ photographed by Steven Meisel, part of Saint Laurent Rive Droite Miami exhibition

(Image credit: Courtesy of Saint Laurent)
Fashion Features Editor

Jack Moss is the Fashion Features Editor at Wallpaper*. Having previously held roles at 10, 10 Men and AnOther magazines, he joined the team in 2022. His work has a particular focus on the moments where fashion and style intersect with other creative disciplines – among them art and design – as well as championing a new generation of international talent and profiling the industry’s leading figures and brands.