Text: Wyatt Allgeier
“The trouble with perfection is that it begins to look easy.”
From “The Perfect Moment” (1988) to “The Perfect Medium” (2016), much has changed. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography has not changed in appearance—an expertly posed gimp is a gimp is a gimp—but our culture has. “The Perfect Moment,” his inflammatory swan song, touring during the final months of his life, stoked the “Culture Wars” in their twilight, and became a national topic of discussion and outrage. Art, as usual, moved faster than society was comfortable with. Jesse Helms whined behind podiums galore (perhaps the better to hide his excitement). Here in the 21st century, with “The Perfect Medium,” an unprecedented dual retrospective opening this month at both LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the same images, plus many more, are being exhibited to the public without any pearl clutching to be seen. How the tides do change.
A crucial element in this shift was certainly Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010, a national bestseller that successfully mythologized Mapplethorpe as a renegade artist of the sacred and profane to a broad audience. His immortalization and legitimization by his lovers has been common both during his life and after; Just Kids was particularly effective. The world is now seemingly ready to move past the political hubbub of the late 1980s and look squarely at Mapplethorpe’s graceful nudes, sublime punishments, perverse flowers, and defiant women with an eye for understanding the beauty of his offerings without scandal.
Speaking with the Getty Research Institute’s associate curator, Paul Martineau, about the strategy for displaying such a varied body of work reveals important paradoxes of Mapplethorpe’s life and art. “We went through all the prints and came up with about 400 works from about 2,000 that we have in the collection. We still had to divide them up and to do that we needed to have a concept. Given that Mapplethorpe has this planned duality built in to his personality and his story, we thought that we should concentrate on the Apollonian side and Dionysian side of his personality. When we started thinking in those terms it became very easy to separate the work.” LACMA is tasked with displaying his “Dionysian” work—the gritty New York portraits and documents of the “sexual underground”—while the Getty is in charge of exhibiting the “Apollonian”—meticulously composed flowers, neoclassical inspired nudes, and refined portraits. However, as with anything related to Mapplethorpe, the divide between the two is never so clean-cut. The Getty will be showing his infamous “X Portfolio,” consisting of violent sadomasochistic imagery and the well-known self-portrait of the artist with bullwhip lovingly inserted into anus. These images, just a room away from his family-friendly flower photographs, drive home part of what makes his work unique: it is not the subject itself but the objective, aesthetic documentation of subjects as perfection that underlines everything Robert Mapplethorpe created.
Naturally, seeing the work in person is ideal, but for those that can’t make it to Los Angeles, there is Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, the HBO documentary premiering this April from filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (masterminds behind Inside Deep Throat, RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and more). While the exhibition focuses on Mapplethorpe’s art, the documentary showcases the life that invigorated it. “I think to completely understand him as an artist,” Barbato insists, “it’s important not only to see the work, but to get a feel for the life he lived, because that was part of his art.” As the documentary chronicles his childhood (a prankster even then, tricking his brother into eating ashes), his early days at Pratt in Brooklyn (experimentation and LSD, like any good art school student), and his meteoric rise to fame, it becomes clear that what is seen in Mapplethorpe’s work was calculated but equally truthful. Through touching and often hilarious interviews with a who’s who of ’80s New York (Fran Lebowitz, Sandy Daley, Bob Colacello, Jack Walls, and more), the goal of humanizing Mapplethorpe becomes more tangible and yet more distant. Again and again, the interviewees describe him as otherworldly, from “angelic” to “a ruined cupid.” As Bailey explains, “Other people saw him in these terms of good and evil, you know, in these sorts of mythological terms. He himself was fascinated with that duality, but ultimately, I think of this quiet, soft-spoken guy as very human, except perhaps in that he had this extraordinary will to survive his own death and I think that that’s what’s really fascinating.”
And survive he has. Though the vast expanses of the Internet’s perverse offerings have dulled the shock of some of his images, fascination with his work persists. The adoration for and legacy of his art is due in part to his own wise creation of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, but, even more so, to the undeniable, sublime perfectionism in his art. It is, after all, no coincidence that the word “perfect” arises so often. As Martineau says, “It was meant to be a provocation, but that provocation rests on the perfect lighting, the perfect pose, the way the white shirt is pulled out and kind of creates a sheath for the penis. Everything about it is just right.”
“The Perfect Medium” runs from March 20 to July 31 at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The J. Paul Getty Museum Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premieres on HBO this April