CINCINNATI — What do you think of when you hear the name “Robert Mapplethorpe?” For many people, mention of the artist evokes critical conflicts and cultural moments in American history: the AIDS crisis and the lives lost to it; a bygone era in New York’s bohemian history (the days of Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel); the acceptance of photography as a fine art medium.
For long-time residents of Cincinnati, the name conjures a polarizing event in local history: the 1990 trial during which the city indicted its Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and the institution’s director, Dennis Barrie, for obscenity in their exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, entitled The Perfect Moment. It was “believed to be the first criminal trial of an art museum arising from the contents of an exhibition,” according to a New York Times article from October 1990. Seven of the 175 displayed photographs were at issue: two portraits of semi-nude children and five images from Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, which depicts acts of BDSM and other fetishistic sexual practices. Ultimately, after seven months of turmoil, a jury found Barrie and the CAC not guilty. Though perhaps a victory in the never-ending battle over freedom of speech, the fact that the trial happened at all cast Cincinnati in a provincial light. The exhibition had previously traveled to Boston and Philadelphia without incident — though, notably, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, did cancel its run of the show afterwards.
Decades have passed, but according to Steven Matijcio, curator at the CAC, the city has not fully recovered. Matijcio explains that some Cincinnatians see Mapplethorpe as a “liberating force” that advanced the arts and tolerance in the city, while others view him as a kind of “blight” that tainted Cincinnati’s reputation. In order to grapple with the complexities of Mapplethorpe’s legacy and mark the 25th anniversary of the trial, Matijcio organized After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC, on view until March 13.
“With this exhibition, we didn’t want a mirroring of a historic event, but instead something that took into consideration the slippages and mutations over time,” he says. “We were interested in human memory and performances that transform that legacy.” Instead of simply restaging The Perfect Moment, then, Matijcio and six other curators from the region chose five local artists (or duos) each to present work that explores Mapplethorpe’s impact on their practices.
The artists took a wide range of approaches, some more surprising than others. Yes, there are a lot of penises; there are also, however, plenty of works with nary a phallus in sight. Emily Momohara’s “Lotus for Mapplethorpe” (2015) engages with Mapplethorpe’s interest in nature. In the print, a white, fully blossomed flower hovers in darkness, seeming to cast light on darker, still evolving flowers rooted in the ground. The work plays, perhaps, with Mapplethorpe’s ability to illuminate what’s going on in our world, on the ground, while giving budding artists something to aspire to. Mark Harris created a haunting photo silkscreen on metal foil of the cover of The Perfect Moment catalogue that functions as a tribute to Mapplethorpe. Into the metal, Harris etched one of the artist’s quotes: “I never liked photography. Not for the sake of photography. I liked photographs. I like when you hold them in your hand.”
“Harris’s work renders Mapplethorpe in a classical aesthetic,” Matijcio says. “That was the argument in court. Couch him in the language of classicism.”
Curator William Messer chose to bring in five artists associated with the 1990 Mapplethorpe controversy: Sally Mann, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Rosalind Solomon, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Messer himself. Mann and Minkkinen were supposed to show their work in Cincinnati after The Perfect Moment, but Mann withdrew her show completely and Minkkinen self-censored for fear of being legally targeted. Now, their images hang proudly in the CAC galleries, both as reminders of the collateral damage of the trial and as symbols of gradual progress. Mann’s “The Wet Bed” (1987) features a naked child lying supine on a bed he presumably wetted; it’s an intimate image that transforms an act society deems shameful into a work of art. The scene recalls Mapplethorpe’s images of men in sadomasochistic poses, which similarly present the male body in vulnerable, private states. Minkkinen’s piece, “The Glass Penis,” (1988), shows a penis in a champagne glass — a provocative, disconcerting photograph. In the statement that accompanies it, Minkkinen writes, “In bringing the subject matter to light, Robert Mapplethorpe brought integrity, beauty, and esteem to an appendage that, if it didn’t exist, none of us would either.”
After reading what other artists have to say about Mapplethorpe and seeing his clear influence, it’s especially meaningful to be able to experience his photographs, which are also present in the exhibition, in person. “We were hesitant to add actual Mapplethorpe work to the mix,” says Matijcio. “As we went along, different needs revealed themselves. We realized that the Mapplethorpe photographs needed to be there to create a conversation that crosses 25 years.” The curators kept it local, though: Cincinnati collectors George and Linda Kurz, who have the largest collection of Mapplethorpe photographs in the city, lent some work to the show. Other pieces come from a permanent loan to the CAC.
Mapplethorpe’s explicit “Man in a Polyester Suit” (c. 1980/81), featuring a penis emerging from a suit, reveals what made the artist so controversial; notably, however, it was not one of the seven contested photographs. “Jesse McBride” (1976) was one of the images at issue in The Perfect Moment and has now returned to the CAC, along with a number of other originals from the 1990 show. A Mapplethorpe self-portrait and a photo of Patti Smith are on view as well, allowing for a well-rounded representation of his work.
In the end, After the Moment is about more than the legacy of a single artist who provoked controversy in a small Midwestern city during the culture wars — it’s a celebration of the infinite ways in which a viewer can internalize and interpret art. It’s notable that there’s been no uproar in Cincinnati over After the Moment — a happy indication, no doubt, of greater tolerance and growing acceptance of challenging art, and homosexuality, throughout the city. Cincinnati is a conservative place, in many ways indicative of Middle America. The quiet response to the show reveals a culture that’s gradually growing more tolerant and accepting of artists and lifestyles that were, not too long ago, taboo.
After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe continues at the Contemporary Arts Center (44 E 6th Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) through March 13.
Correction: The headline for this piece originally misstated that it had been 20 years since the obscenity trial, not 25. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.