Robert Mapplethorpe continues to stand as one of contemporary art’s most significant and innovative—not to mention controversial—photographers. Best known for his large-format, black and white photographs of nudes and flowers, Mapplethorpe’s work, though highly classical in form and aesthetic, is often challenging in content, pitting composition and substance against each other. Situated somewhere between the legacy of fine-art photographers working mostly in-studio, like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, and his contemporaries, like Andy Warhol, who were pushing the medium of photography into new uses, Mapplethorpe blends a refined technique with a unique sensibility of classical-meets-wholly unexpected.
LACMA’s “Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ,” opening October 21, will display the artist’s most iconic—and infamous—work of three portfolios, each of 13 black and white photographs. The X portfolio (1978) focuses on homosexual sadomasochistic images shot in-studio, Y (1978) includes Mapplethorpe’s well-known still lifes of flowers, and Z (1981) showcases nude portraits of African-American men. Each portfolio will be arranged in three horizontal rows atop one another (X on top, Y in the middle, and Z on the bottom), a suggestion made by Mapplethorpe in a 1989 interview.
“This exhibition includes some of the photographs that were used as evidence in the 1990 obscenity trial in Cincinnati. More than 20 years later, they are still challenging pictures,” notes Britt Salvesen, the exhibition’s curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at LACMA. “I think it’s possible to reassess them in social and aesthetic terms in order to better understand just what makes photography such a powerful medium.” The XYZ portfolios are “Mapplethorpe’s own summary of his artistic aims, established relatively early in his short career (he began photographing in the early ’70s and died in 1989),” says Salvesen. “Everything he achieved in the ’80s came from the themes he expressed in XYZ.”
The exhibition at The Getty, “In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe,” opening October 23, provides contextual background to Mapplethorpe’s artistic achievements in the XYZ portfolios, so it is advisable to whet your palate with this exhibition first. Arranged chronologically in one gallery, the exhibition focuses on a selection of Mapplethorpe’s early mixed-media objects, as well as his portraits, nudes, and still lifes. “The chronological arrangement makes the aesthetic trajectory of the artist’s career visible,” says Paul Martineau, an associate curator of photographs at The J. Paul Getty Museum. The two institutions jointly acquired the collection of nearly 2,000 key last-edition prints, 200 unique mixed-media objects, 100 Polaroids, and 120,000 negatives, as well as working materials and other ephemera from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation as an ideal complement to The Getty’s existing collection of photographs and papers assembled by Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. (the artist’s former lover and mentor), as well as the archive of Harry Lunn Jr. (Mapplethorpe’s former art dealer). “Because of the controversy they provoked at the time they were exhibited, Mapplethorpe’s pictures of the S&M community have been referred to as the most dangerous works in the history of art,” says Martineau. “They present as art unusual sexual activities and they remain significant because, like his innovative nude-figure studies, they help to expand notions about what is possible in art,” he explains.
“Mapplethorpe’s work has consistently evoked strong reactions. Some have condemned its explicit content, notably during the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s. Others defend the artist’s right to freedom of expression and admire his mastery of the photographic medium,” continues Martineau. “LACMA’s exhibition offers audiences the opportunity to assess Mapplethorpe’s confrontational photographs—with their paradoxical mix of classicizing; austere form; and raw, uninhibited content—through three series that defined not only his artistic career, but also a moment in American cultural politics.”
Regardless of one’s own artistic predilections, Mapplethorpe’s body of work continues to remain relevant, and having the artist’s archive in Los Angeles, despite Mapplethorpe’s lifelong attachment to New York, provides an opportunity for LA to familiarize itself even more with the oft-challenging, though stunningly beautiful, photographs of an American master. Says Salvesen: “Mapplethorpe devised a formula for self-expression that perfectly suited the cultural priorities of his time—embracing his notion of the beautiful, while not avoiding what some might consider ugly.”