Robert Mapplethorpe, Public Exhibitions in Los Angeles

0 Posted by - July 17, 2016 - FEATURED SHOWS

 

 

What excited Robert most as an artist was to produce something that no one else had done.

– Patti Smith, Just Kids

 

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

 

A retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe has hit Los Angeles this summer. Special exhibitions of his photography are on display at the two largest art museums in town: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Getty Center. The shows celebrate the acquisition of his work by these institutions from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Sharing the title Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, they showcase the defining and controversial work of a man who pushed the boundaries of art and photography.

 

Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 and grew up on Long Island in New York. He was one of six children in a Catholic household. He would leave this life behind to pursue instead a life in the burgeoning art world of New York City.

 

The show at LACMA displays some of Mapplethorpe’s early work, what would ultimately lead him to the photography that made him famous. In 1960’s New York, Mapplethorpe was drawing, collaging with images from adult male magazines, and making necklaces. In this work we see an early sense of precision and delicately balanced masculine sexuality. Patti Smith, who would become a celebrated poet and rock singer, was his girlfriend and companion through this time. Though fate would end their romantic bonds, they remained life-long friends and artistic confidants. As Mapplethorpe and Smith parted from their romantic relationship, he began to explore an underground homosexual scene. With one foot in this world and one foot in the art world he defined the public image we now have of him. Mapplethorpe’s search for place and perhaps identity are reflected in the evolution and refinement of his choices in medium, subject matter and sense of aesthetic.

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, LACMA

 

Upon borrowing a Polaroid camera from a friend, Mapplethorpe began taking his own photographs. In photography he found a medium that would excite and engage him for the rest of his life. In time he graduated to a Hasselblad camera given to him by lover and patron Samuel Wagstaff (whose Photography collection is concurrently on display at The Getty Center). Mapplethorpe’s photographs are unadorned and to the point. They ask you to both consider the subject matter and then to let go of it, admiring only its form. The ways in which light affected and controlled the work was an endless study for Mapplethorpe. The depth of his black backgrounds feel endless, the deep monotones counterbalance the play of light reflecting from his subjects. They appear slick, wet, tangible and perfect.

 

With Mapplethorpe’s ascent into the art world he had the opportunity to take portraits of many influential people. From art world personas such as Andy Warhol to celebrities like Richard Gere, there are many recognizable faces in the portraits that line the gallery walls of LACMA and The Getty. Mapplethorpe was intrigued by fame and undoubtedly wanted (and attained) it. The art world was smaller then, the entry into its societal exclusivity was different than it is today. These portraits reflect its marked grandeur and illusive sophistication.

 

It would appear, however, that Mapplethorpe’s true passion was working with his models. He was most interested in taking nude or semi-nude pictures of male models in his studio, using primarily black men in the later part of his career. Physicality, poise, beauty, gaze, and connection are all factors in this work. He had personal relationships with many of these men that likely fueled the intensity of stillness he was able to capture with them in his studio. They contain an unarmed sexuality, a sense of identity-driven provocation. The models are poised and passive, almost sculptural in nature. In addition to the men Mapplethorpe photographed, LACMA showcases a number of his portraits of Patti Smith and both institutions have works from his years of collaboration with Women’s Bodybuilding World Champion Lisa Lyon.

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

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Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, LACMA

 

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Patti Smith, album cover for Horses; Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, LACMA

 

No retrospective of Mapplethorpe would be complete without a nod to his infamous X Portfolio. This series was first shown in 1978. It is an open look at the homosexual BDSM scene at this time of which Mapplethorpe was a part of. These photographs brought an unknown world into to the consideration of high art. By documenting these actions Mapplethorpe made their existence undeniable. Their reality was now open to consideration by a more general public. They are at once shocking, vulgar, pornographic, beautiful and intensely real. Mapplethorpe did not think these images should be for everyone. His intention was to have Portfolio X displayed under a glass case marked for viewers over 18. They Getty Center pays homage to this originally desired display.

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

 

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

 

Mapplethorpe may be most remembered for these images, and for the controversy that unfolded around them. They began debates about the boundaries of art and pornography, and when it is appropriate for public funds to be used for art. It would be wrong however to let this stigmatization put a lens on his work. He also had a passion for taking pictures of flowers. These florals are treated as all his subjects were, with careful thought to position, light and form.

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

 

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Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

 

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Lara at the exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, The Getty Center

By Lara Salmon

7/17/16

 

A special thank you to William R. Zaluski for his guided tour of the Mapplethorpe exhibition at The Getty Center, and to Patti Smith for her novel Just Kids which gives a personal look at the work and life of Robert Mapplethorpe before he found fame. Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is on display at LACMA and The Getty Center until 7/31/16.

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