These Perfect Moments
A new documentary and two exhibitions shed new light on Robert Mapplethorpe, photography’s enfant terrible
by Larry Buhl
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]utside of the art world and the gay BDSM scene of New York, many people, myself included, first heard about Robert Mapplethorpe more than a year after his death, in 1990, when his traveling traveling solo exhibit, “This Perfect Moment,” curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), bought obscenity charges against the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director Dennis Barrie. Though a jury found Barrie and the museum not guilty, Mapplethorpe was now “guilty” posthumously, of creating scandalous photographs that could shut down exhibitions.
But he was in the national consciousness. His biographer says that would have pleased the photographer immensely, because fame (and to a slightly lesser extent, sex) was a prime motivator for Mapplethorpe.
He might have attributed his posthumous fame (or infamy, depending on one’s point of view) to the poisonous proclamations of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms a year earlier. In 1989, the porcine and persistent homosexual hater learned that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had given the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia $30,000 for Mapplethorpe’s works. To be fair the ICA received more pieces than the homoerotic and masochistic photos, but there’s no point letting facts get in the way of good demagoguery.
In a tirade encouraging Congress to cut NEA funding Helms used Mapplethorpe as an example of degenerate art that taxpayers’ dollars should never fund. In his excoriation of the artist on the Senate floor, Helms described Mapplethorpe as a “jerk” who “died of AIDS”—presumably getting what he deserved—and demanded that his fellow Senators “look at the pictures” to be disgusted by the phallocentric photos he saw.
One might wonder how many colleagues took Helms up on the offer, or how much time Helms spent pondering the photo of an enormous black penis poking out of the fly of a cheap, polyester suit or the one of Mapplethorpe with the bullwhip in his anus. But we can’t ask Helms. He’s dead.
Mapplethorpe’s work lives on, though, and the world is getting a new opportunity to see it through the HBO documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures—the title is from Helms’ Senate Floor demand—and two retrospective exhibitions of his work in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J. Paul Getty Museum have companion exhibitions with the same name, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium.” The LACMA show is just a sample of his huge body of work, including early drawings, collages, sculptures, and Polaroid photography, portraits, still lifes, and figure studies, two seldom-seen moving image works, and his experimentation with a variety of media. LACMA also gives some insight into the artist’s relationship to the sexual and artistic undergrounds of seventies and eighties’ New York. The companion exhibition at the Getty museum focuses on Mapplethorpe’s disciplined studio practice and his exploration of the fine photographic print.
Both exhibitions run through July 31.
The documentary, Look at the Pictures, reveals Mapplethorpe’s life from his childhood in Queens to his death in 1989 at the age of forty-two. The film, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, includes interviews with his family and friends. There’s a fascinating union of two Mapplethorpe subjects, one black, Ken Moody, and one white, Robert Sherman, both bald. The Moody/Sherman exchange laid bare a lot about Mapplethorpe’s approach to his subjects, sexual conquests, and fetishization of Black men.
There were no video interviews of Mapplethorpe in Look at the Pictures, only audio interviews, mostly recorded by Patricia Morrisroe from the tapes she used to write Mapplethorpe: A Biography, which was published by Random House in 1995.
Morrisroe told me that she hasn’t seen the Getty or LACMA installations but she believes that Look at the Pictures represents an unsurprising “softening” of Mapplethorpe’s image over more than a quarter century.
“[Robert] has passed from being a real human being at a certain time period and passed into legend. And with that he becomes slightly more out of focus.”
Morrisroe said the softening is unsurprising because many of the people who can speak to the darker aspects of Mapplethorpe’s personality are no longer alive. She interviewed many of them, and many with Mapplethorpe, and she says she had a pretty clear idea of Mapplethorpe as an artist and a man. And what she came away with is an image of the man that, unlike the photographs he took with precision, is impressionistic and highly imperfect.
“There was a sweetness to Robert, even though he could be cold and calculating. I could see how he was able to manipulate people because there was a vulnerability about him. But there was also that dark side that didn’t stop going to these bars where he picked up Black guys after he was diagnosed with AIDS. There was an angry avenging side to him.”
Mapplethorpe and AIDS are linked not because he was an activist for a cure in his waning days—far from it—but because the images suggesting, and sometimes more than suggesting, rough sex between perfect male specimens encapsulate a time, his time, in the seventies and eighties, times in the gay world that are now associated with sickness and death.
And then there’s the racism.
In 1986, Mapplethorpe’s collection of photographs celebrating the beauty of African-American men, Black Book, was published to the consternation—and, maybe, titillation—of those who wanted to censor art and deny public NEA grants. In the last years of Mapplethorpe’s life, by his own admission, he exclusively had relationships and sexual adventures with Black men. The mostly erotic depictions of Black men were criticized at the time for being exploitative for their focus on segments of the subject’s bodies. Mapplethorpe has said that he simply loved Black men and using their bodies in photographs was a search for the Platonic ideal. But Morrisroe tells me that in her interviews with Mapplethorpe and his friends she saw a more troubling side to his love of Black men.
“Robert would associate with upper class white men and their attitudes toward the men they had relationships with was very colonial. It was shocking to me. One [of Robert’s white friends] referred to them as primitive, and Robert would talk about how stupid they were. One wealthy friend of Robert’s, long since dead, was constantly using the N word. That has all been swept beneath the rug. Robert told me he thought a black model gave him AIDS [sic]. There was an ugliness [to his attitudes].”
Look at the Pictures touches on this aspect of Maplethorpe’s psyche, but only a bit, where Ken Moody, one of his black subjects, says that the photographer had no interest in him sexually because Moody’s personality was “too white.”
AIDS and Mapplethorpe
In the HBO documentary there is some perhaps unintentional gallows humor, with some video of curators at the Getty talking about his most controversial sexual work while holding his photographs with gloves. It’s unclear whether the filmmakers wanted a clear connection to “untouchable” explicit photographs—and the untouchables that people with AIDS were to many in the eighties—or not.
There was nothing in Mapplethorpe’s work that was overtly about HIV/AIDS, and that’s not surprising given his approach to the disease and to his own illness.
As with his attitudes about race, Mapplethorpe’s approach to AIDS and how it affected the greater communities was hardly progressive, Morrisroe says. After he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986—though he was exhibiting classic signs of HIV-related illnesses years before that, Morrisroe says—Mapplethorpe was figuratively in his bunker, working up until the last minute to bolster his legacy as an artist.
“He was one of the least reflective people I ever met. He was smart. He had business savvy. But he was not going to ruminate about AIDS and what it was doing to him or others. He was angry about having it. And he was in denial about it a long time before that. But he was not one to say ‘I feel so strongly about other people who have AIDS.’ That’s not who he was.”
Morrisroe points out that although the not-for-profit Mapplethorpe Foundation has a secondary mission of supporting medical research on AIDS and HIV was not his idea.
“For Robert, the Foundation was about furthering his legacy, period.”
Morrisroe cuts Mapplethorpe some slack on not being an AIDS activist, and points out that there were few public figures fighting to stop HIV/AIDS while in the process of dying.
“I was writing a piece on designer Perry Ellis when he died of AIDS-related causes. To have a brand connected to AIDS was so horrible that the PR woman told me he died of encephalitis from a mosquito bite that he acquired at Donna Karan’s house in the Hamptons. That’s the kind of time it was.”
Is Mapplethorpe still relevant? Clearly, yes, and though he no longer has no detractors in Congress bellowing about his degeneracy, the images still have the ability to shock. On the other hand, it was somewhat amusing to observe staid-looking straight couples in late middle age at LACMA observing the gay S&M photos with the same passive expression as when taking in Mapplethorpe’s photos of celebrities or his prints of tulips.
As far as his place in popular culture Mapplethorpe has been given a boost by his former roommate Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. And in January filmmaker Ondi Timoner announced that she would direct a feature about Mapplethorpe with Matt Smith as the lead.
Larry Buhl writes A&U’s monthly Hep Talk column.