A major retrospective of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe drawn from the Getty collection. The curators are proposing Mapplethorpe as an artist: his photographs are presented in an art gallery. By featuring his commercial portraiture as much as his more well-known (notorious) leather subculture photography, the curators are rebalancing his oeuvre and particular reputation as well as advancing the general cause of the photographer as artist. This exhibition was originally mounted in New York, then Los Angeles, followed by Montreal.
This is light touch curating, it would have been useful to have commentary remarking on the various visual references Mapplethorpe employs, from David Bowie to Andy Warhol. Equally the way in which Mapplethorpe’s work has influenced and inspired a generation, from Grace Jones’ cover for “Portfolio” through to the adoption of leather fetish imagery by mainstream fashion image makers.
The balance of the subjects of the photographs exhibited is nearly 50/50 male/female. We see much of Mapplethorpe’s pioneering work with female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. This is fascinating because their vision of her gym-honed body is both intensely feminine but also exploiting many of the tropes which are more usually associated with the athletic male physique.
The exhibition features more than 150 photographs, mostly silver prints made at the time with Robert Mapplethorpe’s preferred printer, Tom Baril. The benefit of seeing silver prints made optically from the original negatives is that we see the tonal range the photographer intended. Silver prints don’t fade although the paper looses its brilliance, so it is striking how Mapplethorpe’s authorised prints are often quite dark, he clearly did not like highlights washed out to any degree and he valued the detail in intense shadows. His depiction of black leather, which so met with the approval of his sophisticated fetishist clients, is revealed in all its sensuality in these original prints. Most of his later images were made with 6x6 square format negatives but there are some renowned images that look to have been made from smaller formats, presumably 35mm. His portrait of David Hockey on a balcony is a rare example in this oeuvre of an apparently informal snap made with available light.
We also see in full the limited edition prints from Mapplethorpe’s X, Y and Z collections. These have been rarely shown or published so seeing at last the whole collection together was a major revelation to me. These are images of great beauty of the leather subculture made with obsessive perfection of subjects engaging in sexual practices which many will find challenging. Robert Mapplethorpe was also a pioneer in the commercial exploitation of his art work, realising that his acceptance as an artist would benefit from the boxed presentation, including poems, and that he had to generate mystique and scarcity as well as being meticulous in maintaining the high quality of his production and formal perfection of his imagery.
All the prints exhibited here, in keeping with the presentation of the photographer as an artist, are uniformly framed in wide white mounts and black frames behind relatively non-reflecting acrylic sheet. Unfortunately, neither the mounting style nor the dim art gallery strip lighting particularly flatter black and white photography where much of the detail and craft is in the intense shadows and black of the prints.
Robert Mapplethorpe uses a wide variety of the techniques of monochrome studio portraiture: green, red and various other filters in combination with make-up are used to accentuate or disguise the visual characteristics of the sitter. A conventional aesthetic would be to use a green filter to accentuate Caucasian male musculature or a red filter (and maybe blue or black makeup on the lips plus lots of powder and concealer) to achieve the lustrous white female skin tones so typical of thirties Hollywood portraiture. Mapplethorpe uses the same techniques but not in the stereotypical ways; red or orange filters do not affect the tonality of black leather but he uses the technique to flatter his sitter, even a male with a beard. Additionally working with his printer (Tom Baril) to direct the viewers’ attention using light and dark, ie burning and dodging. It’s subtle but seeing the original prints leaves no doubt that it was authorised. These prints aren’t as heavily manipulated as, say, the prints of Ansel Adams, but comparison in the gift shop with the versions published in the main books confirmed that many reproductions are straight prints or scans from the negatives, which is a pity and looses a layer of artistic attention.
There are also exhibited a few of Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures of flowers. The medieval artists had long ago claimed flowers as images representing sexual organs, and maybe that’s why lovers give each other flowers. But Mapplethorpe’s obsessive perfectionism reached its apogee in his photographs of flowers, they are meticulous in the extreme. This exhibition rightly doesn’t play the flower images too heavily, it was a convenient cover for sexual imagery and a diversion from his various brushes with authority and censorship: it is for his photographs of imperfect people and perfect bodies that we should remember Robert Mapplethorpe the photographer and pop artist.
Robert Mapplethorpe died young as a victim of the AIDS epidemic which cut down a generation in the 1980’s, including many of his subjects and supporters. It’s taken nearly forty years for his works to receive mainstream recognition like this but it’s got there: Hurrah!
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989)