Los Angeles

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium at the Getty and LACMA

Robert Mapplethorpe is forever associated with scandals that erupted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati, as well as the crippling drawdown of federal funding that rendered the National Endowment for the Arts a casualty of the late-1980s culture wars. More recently, Mapplethorpe, or the foundation that bears his name, made headlines with two significant acquisitions made by the J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2011. In the twenty-eight years since the artist’s death, Mapplethorpe and his work have been granted the institutional approval he doggedly sought as a young artist. Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, a two-part exhibition on view at the Getty and LACMA, thoroughly maps his creative evolution and contextualizes the artist and his contributions to 20th-century photography beyond the stain of controversy.

Robert Mapplethorpe.  Joe, N.Y.C., 1978 (from The X Portfolio); selenium toned gelatin silver print mounted on black board; image: 7 11/16 × 7 11/16 in. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation, 2011.9.41.6 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe. Joe, N.Y.C., 1978 (from The X Portfolio); selenium toned gelatin silver print mounted on black board; 7 11/16 × 7 11/16 in. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; partial gift of yhe Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation, 2011.9.41.6. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

An exhibition divided between museums is an uncommon practice, and braving Los Angeles traffic between Brentwood and Mid-City on the same day is not for the faint of heart. That said, the split format allows each institution to present Mapplethorpe’s work from a perspective that aligns with each of its institutional identities. Getty curator Paul Martineau describes the divide as Apollonian and Dionysian—an apt assessment given Mapplethorpe’s appreciation of classical sculpture and moments of so-called sexual deviance he captured in equal measure. Martineau organized Mapplethorpe’s work by major categories—Floral Studies, the Sculptural Body, Portraits, Studio Practice—all of which are represented by pieces hung in the introductory gallery. From there, the exhibition flows smoothly and is shaped by striking juxtapositions, including portraits of champion bodybuilder Lisa Lyon and Phillip Prioleau. In isolation, these photographs have achieved iconic status. When viewed within the context of the larger studies to which they belong, the photographs demonstrate the artist’s career-long fascination with the monumental and performative potential of the human form.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Lisa Lyon, 1981; gelatin silver print; image: 17 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. Promised Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.2012.88.482. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe. Lisa Lyon, 1981; gelatin silver print; 17 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. Promised Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.2012.88.482. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

In the final gallery, selections from X Portfolio and ephemera from The Perfect Moment, the 1988 exhibition that cemented Mapplethorpe’s notoriety, are presented on opposite walls. Martineau wisely selected the attendant publication and the September 1989 volume of Artforum to accompany a short statement about the exhibition that aroused intense public fervor. Within the sprawling totality of the Getty exhibition, this small installation effectively encapsulates the details of the scandal without giving it too much attention. Given Mapplethorpe’s maligned public persona, that’s no small feat. What’s disheartening, however, is how X Portfolio is treated. Images of admittedly extreme sexual acts are tucked into a vitrine jutting perpendicular from the wall. To see the photographs, viewers must step to the vitrine and look down—a curatorial choice that references a similar display strategy employed during the exhibition’s brief run in Cincinnati. While the choice is understandable, given the more conservative demographic the Getty tends to attract, it reads as a concession designed to minimize potential discontent and further stigmatizes sex between consenting adults.

Robert Mapplethorpe.  Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, 1979; gelatin silver print; image: 14 x 14 in. Promised gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe. Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, 1979; gelatin silver print; 14 x 14 in. Promised gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Across town at LACMA, it’s immediately apparent that curator Britt Salvesen took a more adventurous approach in displaying Mapplethorpe’s work. Rather than highlight the major categories of his work as Martineau did, Salvesen identified major thematic concerns: sex, success, and Mapplethorpe’s reckoning with mortality as AIDS-related illness and death drew close. The installation opens with solo and group portraits of gay men—affectionate, defiant, and altogether human—who were and still are stridently condemned for the aberrant “lifestyle choices” they celebrate. That such a grouping introduces the installation speaks to the small but significant strides Americans have taken to embrace gay identity.

In the same gallery, we see selections from Mapplethorpe’s early career. As a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he worked with found materials from muscle magazines and religious imagery drawn from his Catholic upbringing in Queens, New York, to create two- and three-dimensional pieces. Moving from the accomplished portraits to the nascent work of a striving student artist, a juxtaposition emerges, aligning experimental starts with fully realized projects. That contrast unfolds across successive galleries, encompassing Mapplethorpe’s introduction to photography through Polaroid technology and eventual mastery of studio portrait practices. The LACMA experience culminates in a room dedicated entirely to X Portfolio and related BDSM imagery. Here, we are treated to the fruits of Mapplethorpe’s obsessive interest in form, texture, and the dramatic play of light and shadow, not to mention his fealty to honest representation of how some gay men interact. Perhaps it’s a reflection of LACMA’s demographic, a desire to push boundaries a bit harder, or both. Salvesen’s decision to hang such images, as opposed to hiding them in the relative safety of a vitrine, reinforces the museum’s foundational effort to embrace contemporaneity.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Wrestler, 1989; gelatin silver print; image: 22 15/16 × 19 in. Promised Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.2012.89.786 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe. Wrestler, 1989; gelatin silver print; 22 15/16 × 19 in. Promised Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.2012.89.786. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

At the end of these rigorously researched and happily exhausting exhibitions, what emerges is an account of a man who was driven as much by the prospects of wealth as he was by portraying his truth as a gay man, consequences be damned. Neither exhibition overlooks how cruel he could be to family, friends, and lovers, or that he slavishly ingratiated himself to those whom he thought could advance his career. Those all-too-human flaws contribute to a broader portrait of an artist who understood, perhaps more astutely than his peers, the cultural moment in which they were immersed as identity politics and the popularity of the photographic medium shifted to center stage.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art through July 31, 2016.

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