THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Above: Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980.

 

Below: Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988.

 

Details of installation views: "Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now," Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photos: David Heald.

Above: Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, 1986.

 

Below: Robert Mapplethorpe, Laurie Anderson, 1987.

 

Details of installation views: "Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now," Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photos: David Heald.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Rose with Smoke, 1985. Detail of installation view: "Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now," Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

 

“Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

by Michel Ségard

 

There were a number of exhibitions in New York City as well as in other parts of the country commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I had the opportunity to visit two of them: the Guggenheim Museum’s “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now,” a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs culled from the museum’s own holdings, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum’s exhibition “Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989.”

This was a bit of an Uptown/Downtown experience. While “After Stonewall” focused on the LGBTQ politics, the Mapplethorpe show made no direct connection to LGBTQ politics since much of his work is so clearly homoerotic. Instead, the exhibition concentrated on Mapplethorpe’s development as an artist.

Organized as a traditional retrospective, the pieces in “Implicit Tensions” fell into five major categories: self-portraits, celebrations of the body, celebrities, flowers, and gay sexuality.

In his self-portraits, Mapplethorpe portrayed himself in various roles. The 1975 piece shows his arm outstretched in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The 1980 portrait, depicting Mapplethorpe bare-chested and with lipstick, makes one think of Rudolph Nureyev. Three years later, in 1983, he portrayed himself as an old-time gangster in a formal shirt and leather coat with an old-fashioned machine gun, standing in front of an inverted star. Two years later and he was the devil (complete with horns). This sequence ends with his final self-portrait from 1988, which shows him holding a staff topped with a skull. He was to die of AIDS the following year. From these works, it is clear that Mapplethorpe found roleplaying an important part of his aesthetics. In this respect, his work is more akin to that of Cindy Sherman than to that of his contemporary Andy Warhol.

After the self-portraits came a group of portraits of (mostly) art celebrities. His 1976 portrait of David Hockney lounging on a bench in Fire Island with curator Henry Geldzahler sitting alongside him is uncharacteristic. In this piece, he positions his subjects in poses that mirror the surrounding architecture, giving a certain ironic or mocking tone to the piece. Usually, Mapplethorpe’s portraits contain no distinct background.

More characteristic are his 1986 portrait of Andy Warhol and a 1987 portrait of Laurie Anderson. Here there is no backdrop; the faces emerge from the blackness. Alluding to his Catholicism, Warhol’s face is surrounded with a mandala of white light in his portrait, giving Warhol a semi-religious bearing—again a return to role playing.

Mapplethorpe also devoted a lot of time to photographing the “body beautiful” in the early 1980s. Four pieces from this effort stand out. Ajitto from 1981 is a quadriptych which portrays a black nude male on a pedestal, knees to his chest and head bowed, in a pose that the wall label suggests is taken from 19th century paintings. The wall label also states that the images suggest “the commodification of black bodies during slavery,” one of the few overtly political assertions in the documentation of this exhibition. Taken with other images of black men and this model, I think Mapplethorpe’s message is more simply that black is beautiful. That message is reinforced by Ken Moody and Robert Sherman from 1984 and Ken and Tyler from 1985. In these two pieces the message is expanded to include and dramatically illustrate the position that black and white are equally beautiful. Strangely, the wall label for these pieces only mentions the “the nuanced tonal range, velvety texture, and matte surface finish made possible with platinum printing.”

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ajitto, 1981. First image of a quadriptych. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 95.4322 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

 

The other “body beautiful” piece that caught my eye was a 1982 piece, Lisa Lyon. Lisa Lyon was the first Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding champion. In this photo, she strikes a "muscle" pose with her left leg forward and wears a long, white veil over her head. The first thing that becomes apparent in this piece is how similar her pose is to those in the later work Ken and Tyler. Taken together, these two works subtly speak to women’s equality.

In discussing the images of Lyon in the exhibition, the wall label acknowledges this stance in an awkwardly academic manner by stating, “Lyon inhabits and complicates stereotypes of femininity to present a vision of empowerment.”

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken and Tyler, 1985. Platinum-palladium print, Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 96.4373. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

 

The other two categories, flowers and gay sexuality, could be thought of as one. After all, flowers are the hermaphroditic sex organs of plants. Moreover, the categories were shown in adjacent areas of the exhibition Mapplethorpe himself noted the similarity, as quoted in one of the wall labels: “My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing a cock. Basically, it’s the same thing.…It’s the same vision.” This is seen in Rose with Smoke from 1985. It has an erotic undertone accentuated by the smoke in the background and suggesting a tabooed hideaway. The 1988 composition Poppy is almost phallic in nature, as the stems of the two flowers jut out horizontally into the square of the picture. This equivalence in Mapplethorpe’s mind is confirmed in Dennis Speight. Done in 1983, the photo’s eponymous nude model holds five calla lilies upright in his fists while his detumescent phallus is in shadow beneath them.

Finally, there are the phallocentric photos which concentrate on gay leather and S&M. It is this category of Mapplethorpe photos that caused an uproar in Cincinnati when the city’s Contemporary Arts Center exhibited some in 1990. Director Dennis Barrie and the museum were charged with criminal obscenity, and a number of corporations withdrew their sponsorship of the museum. Eventually both Barrie and the museum were found not guilty on all charges.

American society continues to have difficulty with the depiction of overt sexuality, especially if it is not heterosexual. Even in this exhibition, these pieces were set aside in their own room. One of the most famous from this series is Man in Polyester Suit from 1980. The black male subject poses in a cheap polyester suit, his face cropped out of the image which centers on his torso. His exposed semi-tumescent penis protrudes out of his open fly. The piece alludes to stereotypical associations with regard to black masculinity, the relationship between masculinity and aggression, and the homosexual obsession with the phallus and its objectification. Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 ½) (1976), naked except for leather chaps that showcase his genitalia, and Patrice (1977), dressed only in an elastic jockstrap and leather jacket, reinforce the theme of phallus worship. But all these images can be viewed as social commentary and not merely as titillating homoerotic imagery. They advocate the legitimacy of gay sexuality even if it contains unorthodox practices.

There is no guilt in any of Mapplethorpe’s images. They challenge the commodification and branding espoused by his contemporaries like Sherman, Warhol and the postmodernists by adhering to traditional, rigorous aesthetic principles. For example, his insistence on using the difficult platinum-palladium photo-printing technique to bring out tonal subtlety contrasts starkly with Warhol’s casual silkscreening strategy or Basquiat’s street tagger approach. As this exhibition makes clear, Mapplethorpe was an artist with a contemporary, radical message conveyed via exacting technical refinement and an uncompromising aesthetic.

In this show, Mapplethorpe’s political messages were secondary. Rather, it was designed to secure his place in the pantheon of great technical and aesthetic masters—and it succeeded.

 

"Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now," part one, was on view from January 25 through July 10, 2019.

 

Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner. He is the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays. Before retiring, he was the curator of KPMG's Chicago art collection. He was also an adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute, where he taught for 11 years.

 

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