The Perfect Medium:
Finding Robert Mapplethorpe
By Ann Binlot
Who is Robert Mapplethorpe? To many, he was the photographer behind the lens that captured the iconic image on the cover of Patti Smith’s 1975 album Horses, or the man behind a number of controversial artful and erotic images. To Smith, he was a lover who would become her best friend. To Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr., he was a lover who would go on to influence his photography collection. Two complementary and concurrent exhibitions attempt to uncover the late photographer through his images, artwork, ephemera, and Wagstaff’s collection. On view through July 31 at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the shows share a title: Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium.
Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at age 42, but his legacy remains intact, due in part to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which allowed LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Trust to make a joint acquisition of art and archival materials in 2011. Curators Britt Salvesen, who worked on the LACMA exhibition, and Paul Martineau, who was responsible for the Getty’s show, culled nearly all of the material for the retrospective from the acquisition.
The LACMA exhibition explores his creative process and methods, as well as the photographer’s dual personality—his penchant for high and low, and his knowledge that opposing forces like chaos and restraint could only enhance the creative process. “There were several things that the archive revealed to me, and one of those was improvisational aspects of his work,” said Salvesen. “We see the finished photographs and they’re very controlled and idealized, but behind that was a performance on both sides of the camera—how he would orchestrate the perfection that would emerge in the final photographs.”
The lesser-known aspects of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre make appearances at LACMA; collages and paintings from his days as a student at Pratt demonstrate an aptitude for all things visual, not just photography. He also designed jewelry. In one necklace, dice beads are strung with a charm of the Great Seal of the United States; another carries two charms, each with a profile, and another of an animal claw. “Fashion, ornamentation, display, expressing your identity through what you wear, that was important to him in his social world, but also in his art, and at around the point when he started experimenting with a Polaroid camera, he was very seriously making jewelry and constructions. His portfolio included both photography and jewelry designs, so that was something he pursued quite seriously,” said Salvesen.
Viewers also see the images from Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic work as well as their influences. “These scenes are composed in the studio for the camera. They’re not documentary snapshots or voyeuristic types of depictions. They are carefully composed and choreographed for the camera,” said Salvesen. LACMA also covers portraits of Mapplethorpe by Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Peyton, and Tom of Finland, as well as the better-known parts of his oeuvre, like his portraits of Smith and of Lisa Lyon, the bodybuilder Mapplethorpe experimented with as a subject for six years, capturing her as both a classic ‘80s beauty and as a sex-charged, leather-clad masochist. The vivid floral still-lifes show yet another part of the multi-layered artist, depicting a strong yet delicate sensibility.
Perfection means you don’t question anything about the photograph.Robert Mapplethorpe
The Getty exhibition looks at Mapplethorpe’s studio practice and his deep connection to art history. “We’re devoting exhibition space to various themes that show Mapplethorpe as someone who is interested in art history and the historical art tradition, someone who had the ability to run a studio as a business, someone who knew how to keep the public interested in him and what he was doing—these are all things that are very important for an artist to be able to do in order to grow his or her career,” said Martineau.
A highlight of the Getty part of the survey is Mapplethorpe’s relationship to Wagstaff. A New Year’s note to Wagstaff from Mapplethorpe is on display, as well as several photographs of the collector and curator. A part of Wagstaff’s vast photography collection is another integral part of the retrospective. “His relationship with Sam was very important,” said Martineau. “Sam provided the emotional support as well as the financial support when Mapplethorpe most needed it. It wasn’t a one-way street. They influenced and helped each other grow in interesting and diverse ways.”
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium shows the many sides of Mapplethorpe. From his overtly sexual images of the male form to the brash and then fragile figure in his own self-portraits, the exhibition peels away each of Mapplethorpe’s complex layers, examining them thoroughly, one by one.
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