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Mar
13

Exhibition: ‘In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe’ at The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Exhibition dates: 23rd October 2012 – 24th March 2013

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One of the reasons for setting up Art Blart nearly five years ago was the idea of an exhibition archive – the cataloguing of the blog’s posts so that featured exhibitions did not ephemerally drift off into virtual space. This is one of the problems of a blog, with its roll-through postings one after the other. Thankfully, I recognised the need for a taxonomic ordering of the information early on in the life of the blog, so that Art Blart has now become a form of cultural memory.

The impulse for this idea was the memory of seeing the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney in 1995 (and an outstanding experience it was) and being able to find nothing about this exhibition online. Search for that seminal exhibition in Australia and there is nothing, not a web page, not an installation image, press release, absolutely nothing.

Hopefully there will be a reorganisation of the archive pages in the near future, so that the information will be split into Australian exhibition titles; Australian artists and organisations; International exhibition titles; International artists and organisations under an A-Z rubric.

Marcus

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This exhibition runs concurrently with that of the last posting, Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Many thankx to The J. Paul Getty Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Early Work

Born in Queens, New York, Mapplethorpe studied graphic arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His early work included collage, found objects, and jewelry. Before he took up the camera, Mapplethorpe often used pictures he cut out of magazines as collaged elements to explore sexuality and eroticism. By altering this fetishistic image and re-presenting it in a shadow box, Mapplethorpe removed the picture from its original context and elevated it to a homoerotic icon. The five-pointed star is a symbol of religious significance and the plastic mesh covering the figure evokes the metal screens commonly found in confessionals in Roman Catholic churches.

In 1972 Mapplethorpe met two influential curators: John McKendry, who gave him a Polaroid camera, and Samuel Wagstaff Jr., who became the artist’s lover and mentor. By the mid-1970s, Mapplethorpe had acquired a medium format camera and began documenting New York’s gay S&M community.

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Robert Mapplethorpe.
 'Leatherman #1' 1970

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Robert Mapplethorpe

Leatherman #1
1970
Mixed media print
9 7/16 x 6 3/4 in
Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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Portraits

Mapplethorpe met writer-musician Patti Smith in 1967, and they lived together as intimate and artistic partners until 1974. This image of Smith was one of his earliest celebrity portraits. 

The two collaborated to create this image as the cover for her 1975 debut rock album, Horses. Working in a borrowed apartment, Mapplethorpe suggested using a wall adjacent to a window where a triangle of light fell at a certain time in the afternoon. Smith dressed in men’s clothes and channeled the American entertainer Frank Sinatra with her jacket slung over her shoulder. Her uncombed hair and androgynous air broke radically from the image that the music industry expected women in rock to assume.

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Patti Smith' Negative 1975; print 1995

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Patti Smith
Negative 1975; print 1995
Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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A man’s jacket slung over one shoulder, the cuffs of her shirt cut off with scissors, the Bohemian poet and performer Patti Smith levels her gaze outward with authority and calm. The set of her jaw and lift of her chin suggest she wears confrontation lightly. Simultaneously, a waifish delicacy haunts her tiny body. She touches the ribbon around her neck with long fingers cupped near her heart – a shy gesture and nod to the garb of the 19th-century Romantic poets she admires. With quiet ferocity, the portrait hovers between masculine and feminine, strength and vulnerability.

Intimately bonded in life and work, Mapplethorpe and Smith made this image for the cover of her debut rock album, Horses. It is one of his earliest celebrity portraits, a genre in which he went on to distinguish himself. He often amplified the glamour of his subjects, but modernized conventional portrayals with provocative depictions of race, gender, and sexuality. For example, record executives, concerned that Smith with her lack of makeup and messy hair wasn’t conventionally pretty enough to sell records like other “girl singers,” wanted to airbrush this image. Knowing Mapplethorpe would back her up, Smith refused and the image and album shaped the start of both their iconoclastic careers.

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Lisa Lyon' 1982

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Lisa Lyon
1982
Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Ken Moody and Robert Sherman' 1984 Platinum print

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Ken Moody and Robert Sherman
1984
Platinum print
Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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Flowers and Still Lifes

Mapplethorpe refined his style in the early 1980s, creating images of timeless elegance. After his erotic nudes, his delicate floral still lifes encouraged sexual interpretations. Although floral still lifes have traditionally held these connotations, Mapplethorpe transformed them from a subject that sophisticated collectors were reluctant to display in their homes into an important contemporary theme.

Arranged with his characteristic sense of balance and meticulously lit, this image of a calla lily appears to glow from within. Although preternaturally still, the composition exudes a sense of latent excitement, with the milky white flower almost vibrating against the rich, black background.

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Calla Lily' Negative 1988; print 1990

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Calla Lily
Negative 1988; print 1990
Gelatin silver print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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My whole point is to transcend the subject… go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting, all around, reaches a certain point of perfection.
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Robert Mapplethorpe

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Mapplethorpe’s work, whether in his fashion or fine art photography, is distinguished by a tension between opposites. At the base of this image of a calla lily, he punctuates the wide planes of black and white with what seems a decadent surprise: the three-dimensional, curving lip of the flower’s edge. He explores the effects of light as a painter might experiment with a palette of colors. At the top, the flower glows milky white, reminiscent of light seen through delicate alabaster or porcelain. Mapplethorpe’s spare compositions often showcase familiar subjects in unusual ways. Floral still lifes, for example, have long encouraged sexual interpretations, and especially here, given the artist’s other work with erotic and sadomasochistic subjects. His imagination transformed and energized what some had considered a stale genre.

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“Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946–1989) is one of the best-known and most controversial photographers of the second half of the 20th century. As a tastemaker and provocateur, his highly stylized explorations of gender, race, and sexuality became hallmarks of the period and exerted a powerful influence on his contemporaries. In recognition of the 2011 joint acquisition of Mapplethorpe’s art and archival materials with the Getty Research Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Getty Museum presents In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe, on view October 23, 2012 – March 24, 2013 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center.

Containing 23 images that date from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the Getty’s exhibition features key last of edition prints, rarely shown early unique mixed-media objects, and PolaroidsTM, as well as a wide range of subject matter including self-portraits, nudes and still lifes.
Before he took up the camera, Mapplethorpe often used pictures he cut out of magazines as collaged elements to explore sexuality and eroticism. In Leatherman #1 (1970), Mapplethorpe alters a fetishistic image and re- presents it in a shadow box, removing the picture from its original context and elevating it to a homoerotic icon. His early work also reflected the influence of his idol, Andy Warhol, and it is perhaps Warhol’s cover art for the band The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album featuring a banana that inspired Banana & Keys (1973), a photograph-in-a-box construction. This object marks a transition in Mapplethorpe’s work between his collages and sculpture and his work as a photographer. Much of the tension is contained in the object’s success as a clever trompe l’oeil.

“The mixed-media objects and PolaroidTM snapshots in the exhibition demonstrate the struggle of a budding artist to find his proper medium of expression and develop his aesthetic vision,” said Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “However, the carefully crafted gelatin silver and platinum prints make evident Mapplethorpe’s mature style as well as his eye for prints of the highest quality and beauty.”

As Mapplethorpe committed his focus to photography, he began to explore the subjects to which he would return throughout his career – portraits, self-portraits, and nudes. Photographs that feature these subjects are among his best-known, and continue to influence artists today. One of his earliest celebrity portraits, Patti Smith (1975), was carefully staged by Mapplethorpe and Smith, his lifelong friend. Dressed in men’s clothes and channeling the American entertainer Frank Sinatra, Smith broke radically from the image that women in rock were expected to assume, and embodies the androgyny often found in Mapplethorpe’s photographs.

Mapplethorpe also evoked classical themes in his work, particularly in his nude figure studies. Using the motif of the three graces as depicted by artists from ancient Greece to the 19th century, Ken and Lydia and Tyler (1985) features one female and two male models of different racial backgrounds. Mapplethorpe chose a range of skin tones from light to dark in order to invite new, non-binary interpretations of gender, race and sexual orientation.

Concurrent to the Getty’s exhibition, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ, from October 21, 2012 – March 24, 2013. The exhibition presents the 39 black and white photographs that make up the X, Y, and Z Portfolios created by Mapplethorpe and published in 1978, 1978, and 1981, respectively. Taken together, the portfolios summarize his ambitions as a fine-art photographer and contemporary artist.

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About Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

Mapplethorpe was a major cultural figure during a period of tumultuous change who contributed to shaping not only the art of photography but the larger social landscape. His international fame derives from his prolific body of almost 2,000 editioned, large format black-and-white and color photographs, which have been featured in over 200 solo exhibitions around the world since 1977. Extensively exhibited and widely published, Mapplethorpe’s elegant prints representing portraits, nudes, flowers, and erotic and sadomasochistic subjects dominated photography in the late 20th century. Less known are the over 1,500 PolaroidTM works that Mapplethorpe produced in the early 1970s before he took up the Hasselblad 500 camera given to him in 1975 by Sam Wagstaff, the visionary curator who became Mapplethorpe’s benefactor and mentor.

Widely recognized for the role he played in elevating photography to the level of art, Robert Mapplethorpe always considered himself not only a photographer, but an artist. From 1963 to 1969, Mapplethorpe studied for a B.F.A. at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, where he majored in graphic arts and took courses in painting and sculpture – but never attended photography courses. In the late 1960s, he started clipping images from magazines to incorporate into collages. While living at the Chelsea Hotel with his friend and muse, Patti Smith, he borrowed a PolaroidTM camera in 1971 from fellow hotel resident Sandy Daley to create his own images for use in collages. Overshadowed by the power of his later large format photographs, Mapplethorpe’s early drawings, collages and assemblages, created between 1968 and 1972, remain largely unfamiliar, despite the importance they hold in understanding the artist’s formative years.

In the mid-1970s, using the Hasselblad 500, he began photographing participants in New York’s S&M subculture and created many of the strikingly powerful studies for which he is most renowned. He refined his style in the early 1980s and began concentrating on elegant figure studies and delicate floral still lifes, as well as glamorous celebrity portraits. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, his work emerged at the center of a culture war over the use of public money to support art that some deemed obscene or blasphemous. When some of Mapplethorpe’s more controversial works were exhibited at The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, director Dennis Barrie was arrested and charged with pandering (a charge of which he was ultimately acquitted after a landmark public trial).

Mapplethorpe died in 1989 at age 42 from complications of AIDS.”

Press release from The J. Paul Getty Museum website

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Thomas' Negative 1987; print 1994

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Thomas
Negative 1987; print 1994
Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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Mapplethorpe’s strong, uncluttered compositions of statuesque male models fused a classical sensibility with homoerotic content at a time when the male nude was not a popular subject among camera artists. In this image, the model’s body is taut with compressed energy, his muscled limbs bent in a way that is reminiscent of those seen on ancient Greek figure vases.

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Ken and Lydia and Tyler Negative' 1985, print 2004

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Ken and Lydia and Tyler
Negative 1985, print 2004
Gelatin silver print
1
5 1/8 x 15 1/16 in.
Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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Nudes

Mapplethorpe often evoked classical themes in his work, particularly in his nude figure studies. In this image, he began with motif of the Three Graces as depicted by artists from the ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century, but took the reference in fresh directions. 

He selected one female and two male models of different racial backgrounds to achieve a range of skin tones from light to dark and to invite new, non-binary interpretations of gender, race, and sexual preference. Mapplethorpe trained his lens on the models’ conjoined bodies, purposely excluding their heads from the frame. Although he identified his models by name in the title, instead of a portrait, he created an elegant study of form and tone.

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Self Portraits

From 1970 until his untimely death in 1989, Mapplethorpe continually returned to the self-portrait as a means of expression. Despite his elaborate pompadour and face so attractive as to be almost pretty, the artist’s stare in this self-portrait is forceful and direct. Mapplethorpe’s sophisticated use of lighting gives the outlines of his mouth, nostrils, and earlobes a refined, even sculptural quality. The same elements of glamour and striking simplicity for which he is known in his celebrity and fashion portraiture are visible here, including a tightly cropped composition and uncluttered background that further dramatize the face. Mapplethorpe drew on his early commercial work for magazines, including Vogue. This aspect of his career followed the examples of other noted photographers such as Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Herb Ritts.

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Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Self-Portrait' 1980

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Self-Portrait
1980
Gelatin silver print
14 x 14 in.
Jointly acquired by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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The J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049

Opening hours:
Tues – Friday 10 – 5.30pm
Saturday 10 – 9pm
Sunday 10 – 9pm
Monday closed

The J. Paul Getty Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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