LOS ANGELES — The remarkable two-museum show Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, gathering hundreds of photographs, collages, installations and other objects at both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center, represents just a portion of the spectacular gift of the Mapplethorpe Trust to those institutions. This collection is not only revelatory but will endow the city with a body of work that speaks of mostly New Yorker outsider notions of beauty, power, and sex that still fit in very well with Los Angeles’s own underground traditions.
Even in his earliest collages (such as “Proposition #1,” 1968) and installations — pieces created in the 1960s and early 1970s — as well as in his photographic studies of his close friends such curator Sam Wagstaff (a show at the Getty devoted to Wagstaff’s extensive photographic collection accompanies their Mapplethorpe exhibition), body builder/actress Lisa Lyon, writer Kathy Acker, and singer-poet Patti Smith from the early 1980s, Mapplethorpe focused on the fringes of more traditional mainstream American culture.
It was during this same period that he first shot his provocative S&M and gay sexual works, such as “Boot Fetish” (1979), “Dominick and Eliot” (1979), “Sucking Ass” (1979), “Raymond Sheldon” (1979), “Eric” (1980), “Man in Polyester Suite” (1980), and “Cock” (1981) — many of these gathered in one large gallery at LACMA, while a portfolio of his S&M photos appear in a long vitrine at the Getty. These works explore outsider notions of gender, power, and sexuality that few other artists and performers — except Andy Warhol, Acker, and porn stars such as Peter Berlin — were openly exploring.
If the lovely faces and bodies of many of his outré figures suggested exceptionalness, despite the general society’s ignorance of or unacceptance of them, so too were his flowers so incredibly exotic or richly imbued with color (as a label at the Getty explained, most of the floral photos were first processed in black and white before some were later redeveloped in color) that they too —particularly works such as “Flower Arrangement” (1986), “Orchid” (1987), “Tulip” (1988), “Poppy” (1988) and “Parrot Tulips” 1988 — seem outside the realm of the usual flower paintings and photographs. Mapplethorpe’s world, like the two, naked, crowned kings of “Two Men Dancing” (1984), is a somewhat surreal one that stood apart of the standard American culture. And, of course, that is what so fascinated and repelled his viewers. Mapplethorpe, so beautifully represented in many of his works, was himself exceptional, particularly in his two “Self-Portraits” of 1980, his handsomely suited “Self-Portrait” of 1986, and his AIDS-ravaged, astonishingly large death’s head “Self-Portrait” of 1988 — one of the most remarkable self-portraits of the entire genre.
His photographs, collages, and altar-pieces documented a world so ostracized from the average American that they threatened the conventional definitions of art. Even formerly respectably museum boards like those of the Corcoran Museum of Art were willing to cancel his show for fear of the Reagan era’s NEA attackers; while the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati was taken to court for obscenity, the first major American museum to be so threatened. It is fitting that this even larger version of that show thoroughly redeems Mapplethorpe’s revisionist vision of American saints and aristocrats. His outsiders, we come to understand, maintained their identities and integrity despite, or maybe because of the narrowness of the dominant culture.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, California) and the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles, California) through July 31.