November 4, 1946– Robert Mapplethorpe:
“When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.”
My husband had said: “I have seen his work at museums in the USA, but, to experience Robert Mapplethorpe in Venice was just too perfect. You should mention this in your post today”.
We arrived via water taxi in Venice in October, 1992. Banners were hung all around this most amazing of cities announcing a retrospect of the American artist’s work. The exhibit was held at the Mariano Fortuny Museum, fabulous and a story in itself. How odd to consider this important Gay American artist in another city other than his own beloved NYC. Mapplethorpe’s work deserves a place with the great classic works of art. The Fortuny exhibit was, at the time, the largest retrospect of his work ever mounted.
In summer 2011, I spent time with the very readable Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of this artist/musician/writer’s friendship, romance and time spent with the Mapplethorpe. Smith and Mapplethorpe lived a particular New York dream: The Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol, CBGB, superstardom, and they lived it to the fullest.
In 2014, while laid low by chemotherapy, I tackled the hefty (at nearly 500 pages) highly readable Wagstaff: Before And After Mapplethorpe, A Biography by Philip Gefter. Sam Wagstaff was a most memorable character. He was a handsome aesthete who had abandoned several careers, including stints as an important museum curator, before reinventing himself as the champion of Photography as a Fine Art instead of the long held premise that it was a practical, mechanical craft. Wagstaff was also Mapplethorpe’s champion, curator, mentor, lover and cocaine buddy.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs, ranging from graphic depictions of gay sex to exquisite portraits of flowers, are all over the artistic map. His work is magnificent in its scope, still frequently shocking, and ultimately very beautiful. Even his more extreme photographs have a certain tenderness about them, and the seemingly harmless pictures generate an edginess that’s difficult to dismiss.
Simultaneously devoted to a strict sense of formalism and composition and to bringing a new iconography of homosexuality, it was not a surprise that Mapplethorpe provoked so much controversy in his era.
Mapplethorpe has become the essential “Gay Photographer.” His homoerotic photographs continue to be disturbing to many people. He made no concessions to the closet. His works are not disingenuous or discombobulated. He brought a captivating and challenging version of his vision to the world and the fashion world bounced his message back to the mainstream.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs have the rare ability to give the most common subjects the status of icons. He didn’t use the camera as a documentary tool but more as an instrument of innovation and role playing. In companion self-portrait pieces he shows himself as a tough macho guy in a leather jacket and as a sizzling femme fatale.
Aside from being one of the planet’s most influential photographers, Mapplethorpe, together with his lover Wagstaff, amassed a world-class collection of photography on an enormous scale. Mapplethorpe also collected furniture, fabric and artifacts. An esthete of wide-ranging tastes, he also made sculptures and designed furniture. One of his own coffee tables was a centerpiece of Mapplethorpe’s exquisitely decorated apartment in Downtown Manhattan.
At the very apex of his career in 1987, he was diagnosed with HIV. Mapplethorpe became a symbol of bravery and defiance to the killer virus. His willingness not to hide his illness helped focus attention on HIV/AIDS when much of the world was ignoring the plague. Never shy of celebrity, his status as an art world icon infected with the virus changed how the public looked at his photographs. His passing in 1989, at just 42 years old, gave his short life a special symbolic significance.
Before he left this existence, Mapplethorpe established The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, providing funding and focus for medical research, with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS, and also for the visual arts, with an emphasis on photography.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs are in the collections of the world’s greatest museums including The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Museum Of Modern Art, The Guggenheim, and The Pompidou Center in Paris.
I feel that Mapplethorpe needs to be noted in history as Mapplethorpe: The Artist, not just as a Gay Artist. History will place him in the great tradition of the best artists in World Classical Art, and like all of the greatest artists, he is both overrated and underrated.
Both the establishment art world’s view of photography and how the government funds the arts in America changed completely because of his work. His pictures continue to be accused of being obscene. So what? Mapplethorpe made art and porn the same thing. That is his greatest contribution.
For me, his most erotic pieces are his photographs of the sex organs of flowers. The work is startling. Considered to be too tough to see 30 years ago, you can now simply Google the word “Mapplethorpe” and view the photographs that caused the conservatives to convulse. These Right Wingers who know nothing of art, but who somehow seem to know what is moral, have been able to successfully end much of the public funding for the arts and they continue point their fingers at Mapplethorpe. The controversy seems a bit overblown in our own 21st century. But, spend some time looking at Mapplethorpe’s photographs. They will offer proof that he continues to be cutting edge, controversial and original.
His life and art still matter so much that last year The J. Paul Getty Museum in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art along with the David Geffen Foundation presented Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, a mammoth showing of his work that took two museums to highlight the different aspects of Mapplethorpe’s complex oeuvre. It played to sell-out crowds.
Early last year, the astonishingly good documentary film Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, directed by World Of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, was shown at the major film festivals and released on HBO. It is an artfully intriguing, insightful work of biographical criticism that places Mapplethrope in the context of his life and artistic vision. Mapplethorpe dared people to turn away from his explicit photographs and Bailey and Barbato’s documentary does the same. It makes us look at his most controversial pictures, proving that he still has the power to provoke, persuade and perturb. I give it an A+, and not because Bailey and Barbato are my bosses. Catch it on HBO On Demand.