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Does Mapplethorpe Still Matter?

Notorious for photographs that pushed private desire into the public realm, two major exhibitions in Los Angeles consider the artist—and the man—in full.

By Sayantan Mukhopadhyay

Robert Mapplethorpe American, 1946–1989 Self-Portrait, 1985

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1985. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The story of Robert Mapplethorpe is a tantalizing emblem of a vanished moment in New York’s urban history, shaded by the underground sexual hedonism of the 1970s and the pursuant AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Mapplethorpe’s status as a dominant figure in twentieth century photography is a product, in part, of the close circle of influential colleagues crucial to his biography: friend and former lover, Patti Smith; patron and partner, Sam Wagstaff; rival and idol, Andy Warhol. But Mapplethorpe was an artist responding to a particular sociopolitical climate, which has to be defined not only by the mythologized demimonde of downtown New York, but also the cultural flashpoint of his first posthumous retrospective, in 1989, which secured his position among a queer intelligentsia flourishing in a time of urgent need.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing, 1984. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The Perfect Medium, two concurrent retrospectives of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe hosted simultaneously at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center, provides the richest narrative about the photographer to date. By centering on Mapplethorpe’s world—his network of affiliations—instead of resting on the artist’s brand of sexual bombast, the shows manage to lift Mapplethorpe out of the often facile discourse on pornography’s contentions with fine art. Together, the exhibitions form a monumental homage to the late artist that at once attempt to resuscitate the narrative of the enfant terrible of American photography, while challenging the grounds on which his fame has been earned. Mapping Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre onto Los Angeles’s diffuse sprawl in a show that spans two locations is a test of ambition, yet despite the miles of freeway separating the institutions housing the exhibitions, the result is a resoundingly cohesive image of the man.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Banana & Keys, 1974 Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

LACMA’s intervention begins with Mapplethorpe’s rarely seen early student work, featuring multimedia installation, collage, and new media. The growing pains of a young practitioner are on view in vitrines: a set of artist-made necklaces, as well as a trio of t-shirts, render the fabled photographer human. This biographical focus contributes to a three-dimensional approach taken by LACMA, allowing Mapplethorpe’s legacy to transcend his relationship to the camera. The first room in LACMA’s iteration of the show is successful in providing important and vivid contextual backdrops for the many developments in Mapplethorpe’s studio practice.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1988. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The remainder of the LACMA exhibition centers on the figures that oriented Mapplethorpe’s later work, before moving onto both his BDSM and flower series. On view in tandem with his sexually explicit photographs—labeled discreetly with an advisory warning as wall text—the Mapplethorpe Archive supplies treasures from the artist’s personal collection of knickknacks, including pornographic mail-order photographs. These souvenirs enliven an image of a man whose life’s work has had a resonant impact, in art history and contemporary visual culture, on ideas about the body and desire. The strength of LACMA’s contribution the retrospective is the context these illustrative objects add to the photographs themselves.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe, NYC, 1978. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The Getty offers a complimentary entry into Mapplethorpe’s life, sometimes doubling up on the subject matter addressed across town at LACMA. The most prominent feature in the Getty’s presentation is Mapplethorpe’s subversive X Portfolio (1978), a series portraying jarring acts of extreme sexual bravado. A moveable wall, mounted with an iconic flower photograph, decorously screens off images from the portfolio. The meeting of these two oppositional mainstays—the corporeal and the floral—is a poetic metaphor for the sensitive treatment that both the Getty and LACMA have given to the artist’s body of work.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Kathy Acker, 1983. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Descriptions of Mapplethorpe’s complicated identity are often crudely flattened into commentary on the uneasy line he towed between fine art and pornography. But this expansive, unprecedented exhibition never denies the complexities of Mapplethorpe’s trajectory as an artist, a celebrity, a friend, and a lover. Previous Mapplethorpe shows to approach this scale—notably The Perfect Moment, which traveled in the U.S. in the late 1980s and spawned rancor for its supposed peddling of erotic imagery as art—have been received reductively as valorizing the artist simply as a formalist quasi-pornographer, while ignoring the vast social make-up of his prominence.

The exhibitions at LACMA and the Getty, and the accompanying LACMA catalogue, address this history through essays that not only look to Mapplethorpe’s status as a queer revolutionary, but also a skilled portraitist, a pioneer of style, and a purveyor of fashion and fetish. The Getty Research Institute’s publication on the Mapplethorpe Archive serves to round out the discussion by narrating Mapplethorpe’s life story through objects from his personal collections.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (“Sam—I love you and I need you—hurry home”), 1974. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (“Sam—I love you and I need you—hurry home”), 1974. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Through their delicate resurrection of the life and times of this art historical underdog, these exhibitions and attendant publications offer the viewer an opportunity to consider the headway that has been made in the discourse on queer visibility in America. While we become increasingly committed to the normalizing of peripheral identities—through same-sex marriage modeled on heterosexual partnerships, rallying around the rainbow flag that reifies a non-existent unified gay nationalism—Mapplethorpe reminds us of the truly radical power latent among queer communities to resist mainstream expectations. The progressive vision embodied by Mapplethorpe’s photographs has yet to be realized. The LACMA and Getty exhibitions are thus a spectacular portrait of a man whose short life fueled suspicion and excitement, and whose images lit an expansive array of incendiary debates in contemporary art and American culture at large. In The Perfect Medium, the embers continue to burn.

Sayantan Mukhopadhyay is a doctoral student in of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles, where his research includes the exhibition history of modern art from South Asia.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center through July 31, 2016. The exhibitions are accompanied by Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, published by the Getty Research Institute.

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