3. A Tale of Two Mapplethorpes
Published: 30.04.2014
in the series Abigail Solomon-Godeau
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A large retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work has just opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is coupled with another Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Musée Rodin where Mapplethorpe’s photographs—I am not joking—are displayed with various sculptures by Rodin.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

As it happens, Mapplethorpe did photograph sculptures (torsos, heads, and backs) in ways not so different from those he used to photograph living bodies, although it seems not to have mattered if the sculptures were authentic, copies, classical, neoclassical, or kitsch. Somewhat perversely (I use the term advisedly), the photographs of sculpture are in the Grand Palais show, whereas the pictures in the Musée Rodin are mostly of living bodies (or body parts) as well as the miscellaneous self-portrait or still life. More to the point, what the exhibition really demonstrates is that for good or ill, Rodin’s sculptures, plasters, or small studies have nothing whatsoever to do with Mapplethorpe’s work and vice versa. Why would they?

The press release of the Musée Rodin makes no reference to Mapplethorpe’s sculptural choices or artistic preferences, perhaps implicitly acknowledging that any given sculpture, as an integral whole, was not what interested him. Much is made of his stated admiration for Michelangelo. But for Mapplethorpe, a part of a sculpture, like a part of a body, was the raw material with which he worked. Be that as it may, The Musée Rodin’s press release provides the institutional rationale of the exhibition:

“There would appear to be little similarity between these two renowned figures, even though Mapplethorpe continually sought to sculpt the body through photography and Rodin used photography throughout his career. Robert Mapplethorpe sought the perfect form, while Rodin attempted to capture a sense of movement in inanimate materials. There is no spontaneity in Mapplethorpe’s work, everything is constructed, whereas Rodin retains the traces of his touch and takes advantage of the accidental. One was attracted to men, the other to women, obsessively in both cases. But this did not stop Mapplethorpe from photographing female nudes, or Rodin from sculpting many male bodies. Here, however, the differences between these two artists are instantly transformed into an unexpected dialogue.”

This dialogue, however, might be better characterized as overdetermined rather than unexpected, since the point of this curatorial exercise is to burnish, sanitize, and heroize Mapplethorpe. Yet again, we can observe, in real time, the cranking up of the apparatuses of canon formation, the mechanisms by which that totem elite culture, the Great Artist, is collectively forged.1“Vingt-cinq ans après sa mort, l’événement est une occasion unique d’élever le célèbre photographe au rang des plus grands artistes de l’histoire, qui l’ont tant inspiré : Titien, Michel-Ange, Piero della Francesca, le Bernin, David, Dali, Duchamp, etc.” Jean-Pierre Aubin, Robert Mapplethorpe, exhibition catalogue, (Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais). n.p. This is hardly necessary for Rodin or his work, housed in its consecrated museum, and Mapplethorpe-Rodin is displayed in that part of the renovated museum aptly called the Chapel. Moreover, in the broadest sense, because both exhibitions are collective endeavors involving different institutions (most importantly, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the source of most of the exhibited work), corporate sponsors, curators from the foundation and the two museums, the aims, approach and presentation of Mapplethorpe’s work is by no means simply the result of a few individuals’ choices. But the nature and terms of the framing discourse within which both exhibitions are conceived, consciously or not, are such as to minimize if not obscure what is arguably Mapplethorpe’s most significant work. In privileging two of his most problematic modes of production—the term is apt—and two of his blandest, a “great artist” is manufactured conforming to the hoariest and most sterile notions of art photography, with the addition of some racial raciness to supply a more edgy frisson.2As all art historians know, when producing the totem of the Great Artist, early work, if not juvenalia counts. Thus, as part of the treatment early pre-photographic works were included from his time at the Pratt art school; some Cornell-like boxes (e.g. Lamb), some collage works, drawings, and this early polaroids.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

I refer, in the first case, to his highly stylized, glacially chic, knowingly retro-pictures of flowers and still lives, his artfully crafted objects such as folding screens, triptychs with moiré silk panels, mirrored panels and other objetsde luxe for interior decoration. Also in this category are the impeccably printed, tastefully abstracted nudes, male and female, black and white, photographs that could easily have come from the darkroom of Edward Weston and his descendants. Platinum printing and other avatars of the fine print, frames of exotic wood, as well as the objects themselves—it is difficult not to see the influence of his various dealers, such as the Robert Miller Gallery, if not the influence of his lover and companion of 20 years, Sam Wagstaff, himself a collector of photographs.3Not only. As curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and later at the Detroit Institute of Art, Wagstaff collected in that area. This collection he sold for a considerable profit and around the time he met Mapplethrope, Wagstaff began to energetically collect 19th- and 20th -century photography of all kinds, in the early stage of what became a boom market in the 1980’s. This collection he eventually sold to the Getty for an undisclosed amount that is said to have been around five million dollars. After the sale of the photography collection he started collecting silver. But dwarfing these pictures and objects in the category of the problematic are the photographs of black men, a subject to which I return in my blog next week. But as instances of the bland—or vanity—category are many of his portraits of artists (some of them friends of Wagstaff or those he had exhibited), socialites (also from Wagstaff’s milieu), fashion designers, actresses, singers, and so on. (His other portraits of drag queens and more marginal individuals are not on view). Judging from the pictures, it seems unlikely that Mapplethorpe had with many of them the kind of intimacy and/or friendship that inspired the portraits of Patti Smith and a few others.

All of which is to say that a Mapplethorpe without the sorts of photographs he chose for his  X,Y, and Z portfolios, as well as certain of the pictures reproduced in the Black Book, is merely another art photographer with a good eye for framing, composition, a perfectionist regarding print quality, and a savvy notion of his market. Without the brutal, gritty, and, still shocking photographs of NYC (and San Francisco’s) pre-AIDS gay underworld of bars, drugs, orgies, S/M practices, in all of which he was a participant observer, one has a very partial sense of what made Mapplethorpe such an important witness of his time and place.

Be that as it may, at the Grand Palais, those pictures deemed too dangerous for the eyes of minors are sequestered in a separate, very dark and smallish room painted a blackish-purple. When I went, there was a cautionary notice posted at its entrance, and inside, it was respectfully hushed, except for the muffled titters of a couple of elderly women. But aside from close-ups of heroically sized-penises and one photograph of analingis, the really hard-core photographs made by Mapplethorpe, were not, as I have indicated, on view. Although these have been reproduced in various monographs and exhibited in such venues as LACMA, those pictures depicting fist-fucking, water sports, various S/M activities, as well as Mapplethorpe’s well known self- portrait with a whip inserted in his rectum, were conspicuously absent. On the other hand, the no-less notorious Man in Polyester Suit was on view in the main exhibition, as well as other nude men, mostly black, all freely available to the impressionable eyes of minors.

Had Mapplethorpe not been struck down by AIDS in the prime of life, as were so many of his contemporaries, Sam Wagstaff and his other lovers included, one could say he had a charmed life, at least professionally and materially. Wagstaff, who died of AIDS a year before Mapplethorpe, was not only independently wealthy, but generous: after he became involved with Mapplethorpe in 1972, he purchased a loft for him (also a Hasselblad) but he was also in a position to help orchestrate Mapplethorpe’s career. A year earlier, Mapplethorpe had become friends with John McKendry, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thus through him was linked to a more uptown and wealthy network. Relatively early, Mapplethorpe had become highly successful and as should be obvious, his photographs had several niche markets. At 31, he was invited to exhibit at Documenta 6; the same year, the Holly Solomon gallery gave him a one-person show, and in 1978, the Robert Miller Gallery became his “official” gallery. And so on.

In the obscenity trial of 1990 that charged the Cincinnati Center of Contemporary Art and its director Dennis Barrie with “pandering obscenity” and therefore breaking anti-pornography laws, it was the task of the defense team to prove to the jury that Mapplethorpe’s photographs were art, capital A, and thus constitutionally protected free speech. (Mapplethorpe had died the previous year of AIDS at the age of 42). To make these arguments, the defense enlisted the testimony of “expert witnesses.” These included Janet Kardon, the original curator of the exhibition; Jacquelynn Baas, then director of the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California, and Robert Sobieszek, then senior curator at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y. By the time of the actual trial, of the 175 photographs in the exhibition, only seven were designated as obscene and pornographic. Two of them were of little girls whose genitalia could be seen, although their mothers’ testified that the pictures were made with their knowledge and permission and that they had tacitly assumed the pictures might be exhibited and/or reproduced (none of his pictures of children are on view in the Paris exhibitions). The other five photographs were of white men engaging in sexual activities. (I will return to this next week). To the prosecution’s challenge as to whether these passed muster as art, Sobieszek argued that “if it’s in an art museum, it is intended to be art and that’s why it's there.”'4Isabel Wilkerson, “Clashes at Obscenity Trial On What an Eye Really Sees,” The New York Times, October 3, 1990. This we might call the Duchampian or the nominative defense, and there is no reason not to take it seriously. But it was, on the contrary, the aesthetic arguments made by Kardon and others, couched in the terms of a formalist aestheticism that approached parody that actually carried the day:

“Would you call these sexual acts?” Mr. Prouty [the prosecuting attorney] asked. “I would call them figure studies,” Mrs. Kardon said. Mr. Prouty then asked her, picture by picture, what was artistic about each work. “What are the formal values of the picture where the finger is inserted in the penis?” Mr. Prouty asked in a straightforward manner. “It’s a central image, very symmetrical, a very ordered, classical composition, she said, noting that Mr. Mapplethorpe once commented on how ‘beautiful’ the hand gestures were.” 5Isabel Wilkerson, “Clashes at Obscenity Trial On What an Eye Really Sees,” The New York Times, October 3, 1990.

In the event, both museum and Barrie were exculpated, but despite the apparent victory of “free speech” as a condition for unfettered cultural production, this was just another coda to what was essentially the end of U.S. government funding for anything remotely controversial in the visual arts.6NEA grant controversy and end of funding 1986 Nevertheless, it is within the sanitizing and mystificatory terms of such abstractions as Art, Beauty, and the Nude, that the Grand Palais, and presumably, the Musée Rodin, have framed their exhibitions. By which I refer to everything from the signage, the epigraphic quotations from Mapplethorpe stenciled on the walls, the physical organization of the show, and, the basic gist of the two accompanying catalogues.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

The issues raised by Mapplethorpe’s work are as large as they are troubling. Both exhibitions work to occlude them. But among the issues that require consideration are the work’s various contexts, its place in the photographic canon, the role of marketplace and museum, the place of the stakeholders of an oeuvre, the various backstories (biographical and institutional) that surround both artist and work, and, in terms of its artistic claims, the complex issue of “content” and “form” in photographic production. These inevitably lead to questions about spectatorial reception, the representation of marginal communities, the psychic and social components of desire in looking, and by no means least, issues of fetishism (both commodity and psychical). And finally, such a body of work requires a difficult discussion about the politics of racial representation as these are enacted and staged in Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men, his lovers and others. These I will write about in the next blog.

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