In a recent Paper magazine article, editor-in-chief David Hershkovits discusses photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as the “precursor of our oversharing age” in Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s documentary Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures. He says: “I’ve known the Bailey-Barbato team for many years and have admirably watched them turn their passion for pop culture into mass entertainment. This reverent portrayal of an artist who made it his mission to turn porno into art succeeds on all fronts, including challenging viewer boundaries no matter what their sexual politics, most prominently in his series Black Men, which both exalted and stereotyped his subjects/ lovers.”
Hershkovits attempts to answer the question about why Mapplethorpe is having such a strong resurgence at this particular time:
Has something happened in the 25 years since his death to account for this unexpected eruption of interest? Certainly the proliferation of images on the internet has something to do with it. What was taboo then, is pro forma today. That he is an artist of the past who touched upon the most contemporary issues—gender, race and sexuality—may also contribute to his growing reputation. As does Patti Smith’s deification of her soul mate and the mythification of the time and place that was downtown New York.
So I posed the question to the directors Bailey and Barbato who responded with this email:
“Mapplethorpe would have turned 70 this year; so it’s something of an anniversary.
“The Jesse Helms condemnation and the trial that followed very much colored our perception of Mapplethorpe’s life and work. Actually they hijacked it, demonizing him as a gay pornographer who died of AIDS.
“It takes time, a long time, to erase that kind of prejudice. Now that 25 years and a generation has passed, we are finally able to truly do what Jesse Helms told us to do: look at the pictures.
“As our peg we use the unusual fact that LACMA and Getty — co-operating for the first time — are mounting simultaneous twin retrospectives. Why? Because the Foundation entrusted a large body of his work to both institutions.
“It’s important to recognize Robert Mapplethorpe’s agency in this. He set up the Foundation so that his name and his work could survive his death. Knowing he was about to die he also planned his last show, The Perfect Moment. Decades before [Bowie’s] Blackstar he was determined to turn his death into a work of art the same way he had with his life.
“With The Perfect Moment, Mapplethorpe wasn’t just curating a show he was building a time bomb. He knew that to combine all the work — the flowers and the sex pictures — in one show would be incredibly controversial. And his interest in doing that was that it would make him world famous. And it did. Today this is how most people know him.
“But now it’s time for people to know the full story of his life and work. And to do that we turn to Robert himself and his own words. Because Robert befriended writers and wanted to be written about, we were able to access a lot of material and have him be our film’s de facto narrator. One of the things he said is that the life he was leading was more important than the pictures he was taking. And this film showcases that life in the context of his work.
“So that’s the specific answer to your question why Mapplethorpe now. But there’s more… because there’s a tremendous resurgence of interest in this period of life in New York generally. Why?
“Perhaps because in the age of social media and everything digital we perceive this era as a golden age when artists were a tight-knit community making art. A pre-wired, pre-gentrified, pre-AIDS New York. Today everything seems about marketing and branding, soulless and inauthentic. I personally don’t think that’s true. The grit and grime was not shabby or chic the way we see it today. And artists were every bit as ambitious then as they are now. Thanks to Robert’s disarming honesty we are able to tell the story — for the first time on film — of how one man driven by ambition and a series of very strategically and very carefully chosen collaborators was able to seduce and invade the art establishment, and survive his death earning a deserved reputation as a great artist.
“On reflection, the shortest answer to your question ‘Why now’ is because Robert planned it this way all along!”
Read the rest of the article here.