The second half of 2019 has meant the second half of the Guggenheim Museum’s year-long look back at the work and artistic legacy of famed—and controversial—American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, its overall title: “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now.” The first half was an in-depth look at Mapplethorpe’s own photographic output via images from the museum’s holdings of his work. The second half, on view at the museum through January 5, 2020, examines the influence of his work on that of other artists over the decades.
I wrote about the first part of the show in my April 2019 blu sunne blog entry “Cheating Death: A Riff on the Life and Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe.” More recently my husband Dave and I traveled back to the Guggenheim on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for a viewing of the exhibition’s second part. Alongside a selection of Mapplethorpe’s own photographs, it showcases work by six other individuals in the Guggenheim’s collection: Nigerian/British photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, South African photographer Zanele Muholi, American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, and American photographers Lyle Ashton Harris, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.
From this small list, it’s clear that Mapplethorpe’s artistic influence extends well beyond American shores. It’s also clear that the documentary aspect of his work as a queer artist whose photography examined, made publicly manifest, and even celebrated parts of what could be called the “queer lifestyle” is still alive and well today in the work of these six individuals, all of whom are gay or lesbian.
One of the best known among the six is Glenn Ligon, represented in the show by his 1991-93 piece Notes on the Margin of the Black Book. The words “the Black Book,” of course refer to Mapplethorpe’s 1986 publication of the same name, which contains ninety-six highly erotic photographic studies of black men. Ligon himself is black, and as a conceptual artist it’s no surprise that he chose Mapplethorpe images from that book as the springboard in this conceptual piece for a dialogue between images and comments by assorted individuals on issues Mapplethorpe’s work helped introduce to contemporary cultural and even political discourse, the main issue being, in the words of the Guggenheim press release on the show, “the ways race and sexuality shape the visual field.”
Catherine Opie is a tenured professor of photography at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), is on the board of the Andy Warhol Museum, and has served as a member of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the board of overseers at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles among other institutions.
Opie’s photography spans a number of genres, among them portraits and landscapes. However, neither her professional resumé nor the references to art history she often incorporates into her work prepares one for the startling rawness one can encounter in some of her photographic images—for example, in her 1993 photo titled Dyke. A self-image with her back turned to the camera and the word “Dyke” tattooed on her neck, she is re-purposing a homophobic slang epithet often used to denigrate lesbians in order to reclaim a proud space for herself and her lesbian community in the world at large, much as the LGBT community has done in re-purposing the word “queer.” Perhaps even more transgressive are two selfies not reproduced in this blog entry (but included as part of the Mapplethorpe exhibition) in which she claims a space for herself and others who have participated in queer leather BDSM culture: Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) and Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), in which words and drawings are cut into the skin of her back and chest.
Moving trans-Atlantic, the work of South African visual activist Zamele Muholi seeks to empower women as well as promote the visibility and welfare of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex communities in South Africa and internationally. The commentary about Muholi’s work indicates the photographer identifies as nonbinary in gender, where the pronouns “they” and “their” are substituted for “she” and “her.”
Siphe, Johannesburg is part of the series Somnoyama Ngonyama (translated as “Hail the Dark Lioness”), self-portraits in which the artist appears as alter egos, often with a Zulu name. Cultural historian Maurice Berger wrote of the series: “The self-portraits function on various levels and pay homage to the history of black women in Africa and beyond. . . . They reimagine black identity in ways that are largely personal but inevitably political. And they challenge the stereotypes and oppressive standards of beauty that often ignore people of color.” The series was published as a book with the same title in 2018 by Aperture.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in 1955 in Nigeria into a prominent Yoruba family that fled to England in 1966 after a military coup that led to civil war in his homeland. He was educated in Britain and the United States. While living in New York City attending graduate school at Pratt Institute, he became friends with Mapplethorpe, whom he described as an influence on his work. He moved back to Great Britain in 1983, where he died in a London hospital on December 21, 1989, of a heart attack while recovering from an AIDS-related illness.
The influence of Mapplethorpe can be seen clearly in Fani-Kayode’s Every Moment Counts II, with its memorably erotic image of a nude black male’s backside in the grip of the fingers of a hand coming up from below. With those fingers, however, along with the white mask held above the the man’s neck or head, he moves well beyond anything Mapplethorpe attempted, into an exploration of Yoruba religious symbolism. The piece appeared in the book titled Ecstatic Antibodies (Rivers Oram Press, London, 1990), and the title of the photo also references the feelings of those living with AIDS in the period before the introduction of antiretrovirals when the disease meant certain death.
The work of Lyle Ashton Harris ranges from photography to videos to collage to installation art to performance art, including occasional collaborations with his brother, film director Thomas Allen Harris. The brothers were born in New York City, and after their parents divorced they spent much of their childhood in both New York and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From his time in Tanzania, he has said he found it important to his development as an artist and a black man to be in a country where black people were in positions of power. And from an early age he and his brother, both of whom are gay, experimented in the safety of their mother’s home with gender and their own sexual identity through drag, which they consider important to their artistic development.
In Harris’s early Americas Tryptich series (1987−88), he appears in wigs and whiteface. According to the Guggenheim press release, the tryptich “offers multilayered ruminations on—and subversions of— ethnicity, gender, and sexual desire.” Throughout his career he has used his work to explore the social and cultural impact on his personal identity as a black man who also happens to be queer.
Last, but hardly least, in this overview of the artists showcased in the exhibition, there is Los Angeles-based Paul Mpagi Sepuya. He’s known as a portrait photographer, a category that for him has a few sub-genres: studio portraiture, fragmented kaleidoscopic collage-like images, and “darkroom mirror” images that are often self-portraits mediated by a mirror that captures him or body parts as the camera shoots into the mirror. For this show the Guggenheim has chosen to display Darkroom Mirror (OX5A1531), in which Sepuya crouches naked, his face hidden behind his hand and the camera that is taking the photo. Sepuya’s bio on the Guggenheim’s website quotes the photographer as saying that his interest in the darkroom has to do with “both the historical origin of the photographer’s craft as well as the privileged yet marginalized site of queer and colored sexuality and socialization.” He doesn’t use professional models for his photography, but instead friends, lovers, peers, and members of the queer community to explore the intersections where desire—especially queer desire—can collaborate and meet creatively.
My April 2019 blu sunne blog entry concluded with the observation that, as long as Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography still lives in people’s imaginations, something of him remains alive. Likewise it could be said that, as long as his work influences other artists, something of him remains alive and vital in cultural discourse. Most of the artists described in this blog entry name Mapplethorpe outright as one of the principal influences on their work. But it doesn’t take words to recognize that influence—it’s apparent to the eye in what they’ve produced, especially in terms of erotic/BDSM/queer/race content. However, all of them have pushed artistic boundaries in their own distinct directions: politically (Zanele Muholi), religiously (Rotimi Fani-Kayode), the intermingling of text with image (Glenn Ligon), performative (Lyle Ashton Harris), and cross-references to art history or other artistic genres (Catherine Opie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya).
I’m reminded of a Mapplethorpe quote Glenn Ligon uses in his Notes on the Margin of the Black Book: “They [Mapplethorpe’s photos of nude black men] were taken because I hadn’t seen pictures like that before. That’s why one makes what one makes, because you want to see something you haven’t seen before; it was a subject that nobody had used because it was loaded.” The intense interest still generated today by Mapplethorpe’s work in the art world and among the general public, as well as the intense interest shown in the work produced by the six artists included in this show (and others who are pushing boundaries in their work), makes it clear that there is a huge hunger out there for something new, and it may be “loaded” for all of us.
We do live in interesting, exciting, albeit anxiety-producing times, don’t we? It’s the gift we receive—and the price we pay—for our curiosity and very human desire to experience something new. It’s the gift we receive—and the price we pay—for a living, dynamic culture.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.