This exhibition has a clear aim – to prove that Robert Mapplethorpe ‘is among the most significant artists of his time’. The evidence marshalled by the curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum is substantial. They have conducted extensive research, sourced outstanding vintage prints, and provided an illuminating chronological and thematic structure for the hang. Instructive signage placed at strategic points tells us that throughout his career Mapplethorpe sought perfection through photography which he considered the perfect medium because it was ‘intimate and immediate [and] a means of seduction, play and control’. There is a satisfying concentration of works in the key areas of his practice which, using the curators’ wording, comprises portraiture, homosexual and sadomasochistic scenarios, photographs of black men, and floral still lifes. Also included are Dada-ist, Pop-ish items from his art school years and two films (one involving Patti Smith, the other bodybuilder Lisa Lyon) which amplify the scope of his art practice.
But is the case for Mapplethorpe’s importance convincing? The exhibition’s curators urge viewers not to be distracted by what was once Mapplethorpe’s highly controversial subject matter. They downplay the documentation of sexual activity to argue for his interest in sex ‘as a purified ideal, reduced to basic form and geometries’. And they respond to the critique that the African American men he so famously photographed have no agency by suggesting that ‘documents of collaborative interactions, investigations of power dynamics, and expressions of the artist’s ideal of physical perfection’. In other words, the curatorial emphasis is more universalising than specific or topical. It is directed to Mapplethorpe’s pursuit of perfection and the ideal, his unique artistic expression, and his technical and formal mastery of the photographic medium.
This approach is perfectly understandable. It has been nearly thirty years since Mapplethorpe’s death and there is no doubt that his work warrants serious attention. Unexpectedly, however, the show reveals that technically and stylistically Mapplethorpe wasn’t an innovator. He didn’t break the rules. He was a traditionalist, a studio photographer par excellence. Students of photography will relish his simplified, highly refined compositions both in black and white and in colour, and his masterful use of artificial lighting. And they will see numerous references to specifically American traditions of studio photography, especially the work of Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon. Mapplethorpe’s traditionalism stands in stark contrast to the radicalism of the conceptually based photography of his contemporaries Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and others working in the United States at the time. His choice of platinum printing for some portraits represents a further embrace of the traditions of fine art photography; popular among art photographers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is celebrated for its luminous and luxurious effects.
Mapplethorpe was part of the arts establishment as well as the gay scene. Handsome, talented, driven, he gained support from powerful players early on, notably John McKendry, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and wealthy art collector, patron and sometimes lover Samuel J. Wagstaff. His insatiable appetite for fame is well documented – he courted media attention and devoured the extensive coverage he received – and he was an astute businessman who built a considerable fortune. Within a few years his studio became the ‘go to’ place in New York for celebrities, including those associated with the arts, who wanted stylish portraits of themselves. There was no shortage of clients, as the show reveals, and no question that he could deliver consummate results.
However, given his reputation as a portraitist it is curious how little depth his portraits convey. Many of his subjects opted for a theatrical display that appears well-rehearsed and too knowing. There are exceptions, of course, and for me they are the high points in the show. The portraits of musician Patti Smith, his one-time partner and long-term friend are complex enough to remain interesting. That is a tribute to Smith and Mapplethorpe’s creative collaboration, and also to her preparedness to take risks as a performer. The portraits of artists Louise Bourgeois and Cindy Sherman are other stand-outs, because of the suggestion of an internal energy that extends beyond the photographic frame.
The self-portraits are also impressive, none more so than the strategically placed final work in the exhibition, taken by Mapplethorpe’s brother Edward. The terminally ill artist is posed clutching a walking stick topped with a small, carved human skull. He stares down the camera in an uncharacteristically intense image, one that is unflinching and purposefully discomforting.
Ermes is another high point. A dramatically reductive composition in which a pure white marble head, photographed in close up, assumes a magnificent presence. The image pushes at the limits of representation, achieving its force through its ambiguity as the head could almost be animate.
Mapplethorpe was, according to the exhibition curators, a photographer ‘who prized perfection in form above all else’. If his significance rests on this fact, there is no escaping that some of the photographs he created are more stylised than stylish, and appear preoccupied with external display. There are no signs of struggle here or of difficulty. Mapplethorpe emerges as a photographer in total control of his medium, his practice, and his own image. This isn’t an exhibition that will move you, but the odds are you’ll be impressed by the artistry and artifice.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.