Provocateur

11.05.12

Robert Mapplethorpe in Los Angeles: Exhibitions at the Getty and LACMA

The legendary photographer is the focus of a joint exhibition at two major Los Angeles museums. Isabel Wilkinson on how his work resonates in an era of ubiquitous sexual imagery.
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© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When you think of Robert Mapplethorpe, you probably imagine black-and-white photographs of muscular nudes, X-rated portraits, and complicated S&M contraptions. And you'd be pretty spot-on. But there's a lot more to him that that.

The photographer's archive, which consists of more than 2,000 prints and several documents, was recently acquired by two L.A. museums: the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Highlights are now on view at the two institutions for the first time. This will serve as the basis for a more ambitious exhibition—a kind of Mapplethorpe 2.0—which is currently set for 2016. One aim of the acquisition, curators say, will be to make California the hub of scholarship on the artist.

LACMA shows three of the photographer's early portfolios, XYZ. (X consists of several X-rated images and self-portraits; Y, the floral pictures; and Z, images of black males.) The small, high-contrast photographs are organized in three vertical rows—how Mapplethorpe originally preferred they be displayed. "Seeing them together proves Mapplethorpe's point: he always said that he approached every subject the same, whether it was a sex picture, a flower picture, or a portrait," says Britt Salvesen, curator and department head of LACMA's Wallis Annenberg Photography Department. The Getty exhibition, on the other hand, offers a sampling of Mapplethorpe's work, (and fittingly emphasizes many of his classical nudes). There are several mixed-media objects, Polaroid prints, still lifes, and portraits—all organized chronologically, to illustrate the way the photographer's work evolved over time.

When a Mapplethorpe show comes to Los Angeles, it's hard not to think about his photographic legacy and the crop of others he influenced: Bruce Weber with his portrayal of carefree youth, Herb Ritts with his glossy black-and-white images of the heroic human body. Even Hedi Slimane, the talented photographer-cum-creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, has successfully marketed a combination of “fashion=music+youth+sex” inspired heavily by Mapplethorpe's aesthetic. “He broke the model and enabled people to pursue certain types of work as artistic expressions that were beyond the pale,” said Paul Martineau, the Getty’s photography curator.

An important part of the artist's story is told through the evolving cultural response to his work. Shortly after he died of AIDS in 1989, a traveling retrospective of his photographs landed at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. The public was outraged by his sexually explicit images, and a culture war ensued. Eventually, the director of the gallery was taken to trial. (Coincidentally, a curator at the Getty and the then-director of LACMA were among the witnesses called in his defense; he was eventually acquitted.)

Mapplethorpe's work served as a documentation of what it meant to be young and gay in the 1980s. At the time, they were symbols of a controversial lifestyle. As writer Edmund White described him, Mapplethorpe was a man who "has always, thank the gods, been shockingly irresponsible about his work." But now, his photographs have become something entirely different. "Controversy was part of the discussion about Mapplethorpe for such a long time that it really wasn't possible to assess the work for its artistic merits," says Salvesen. She attributes this to a larger cultural shift—the accepting of homosexuality, and the greater pervasiveness of sexually explicit imagery online. By 2012, she says, “We have seen an evolution and a greater openness and a willingness to see these as artistic expressions.”