Robert Mapplethorpe, “Self Portrait” (1980), gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 35.6 cm (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

“Where did you learn about this artist?” asked the dubious women to her well-heeled husband as she peered ever closer into a photograph of a leather daddy pissing into the mouth of another man.

“Magazines, movies, posters,” the husband mumbled. “He’s pretty famous.”

The woman shrugged. “I’ve never heard of him before,” she said before turning to the next image unscathed like the inveterate New Yorker she is. This was a sadomasochistic scene wherein a burly man cups the genitals of his upside-down lover in one hand and a cigarette in the other — placed suggestively at crotch-level.

“What’s S&M?” she beseeched her husband, who upon hearing the question turned to dust. “The artists says here that it stands for sex and magic, but this set up doesn’t look very magical,” she added in distress.

“Him and Tom, Sausalito” (1977), gelatin silver print, 35.9 x 35.4 cm (image by author)

Nothing delights this glum critic’s heart more than watching a couple stumble through the work of one of the twentieth century’s most controversial gay photographers: Robert Mapplethorpe. Thirty years after the artist’s death, my pessimistic impulse is to call the artist passé. Society today is lightyears ahead of where it was decades earlier when topics of kink and queerness were relegated to back alleys and dive bars. Why care about shock-and-awe art when it’s lost its toxic luster?

Because: history.

“Dominick and Elliot” (1979), gelatin silver print, 35.4 x 35.6 cm (image by author)

Part one of the Guggenheim Museum’s yearlong retrospective on the artist, Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now represents a palate cleanser through which we can reassess the legacy of the famous photographer’s short but impactful career nearly thirty years after his AIDS-related death. (Part two will begin this summer and will address the artist’s impact on the fields of contemporary portraiture and self-representation.)

There is a subversive joy to seeing Mapplethorpe’s work in public and knowing that his photographs have always been the target of censorship. Not even six months ago, an exhibition of his work in Portugal resulted in a curator’s resignation. Are these images too obscene for the average viewer?

Installation view (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, photo by David Heald)

The fact that we must still ask this question is a testament to society’s unrelenting puritanism and ingrained attitudes toward gay desire. Such tension energizes the Guggenheim exhibition, whose audience walks the halls with deserved paranoia: everyone seems hyperaware that others might be looking at them looking at the artist’s explicit nudes — and they’re right. Voyeurism manifests in every aspect of Mapplethorpe’s work and plays out in the galleries. For queer people visiting the show, the experience is amplified considerably by the lingering fear of being “outed” — the notion that staring at a piece of gay art too long might lead others to suspect you are a homosexual, too.

No surprise that this self-reflective exhibition begins with the artist’s self-portraits. Mapplethorpe always had an affinity for exploring the shades of gray between masculinity and femininity, dressing himself in both butch and femme drag. Some of these first photos depict the artist in fur and leather costumes. Nearby are similarly charged images of artists and celebrities. Louise Bourgeois stars in a 1982 print wearing monkey fur and holding a phallic sculpture. Cindy Sherman cameos in a 1983 photograph, unmasked and wearing a simple blazer. Around the corner is a young Arnold Schwarzenegger form 1976, scantily clad in the smallest of speedos.

“Patti Smith” (1976), gelatin silver print, 35.2 x 34.9 cm (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

The influence of Andy Warhol is painfully obvious in these photographs, that are almost derivative. (That’s not to mention his work’s strong resemblance to the antecedents of Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, and Paul Outerbridge.) Eighteen years younger than the pop artist, Mapplethorpe’s early efforts to ingratiate himself to the Factory doyen failed in the 1970s. “You don’t have a crush on Robert Mapplethorpe, do you?” Warhol reportedly asked confidante and Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello. “He’s so dirty. His feet smell. He has no money.” Only when the younger artist gained a reputation and started really selling his photos in the 1980s did Warhol’s sympathies soften. The pair later even photographed each other.

“Self Portrait” (1983), gelatin silver print, 76.7 x 76.7 cm (image by author)

Mapplethorpe also looked to the past for inspiration. A connoisseur at heart, he was taken to reviving old techniques like platinum-palladium printing which had fallen out of favor during World War I. The artist was one among a relatively small circle of photographers who adopted the strategy in the late 1970s. Although the process was more expensive than gelatin silver printing, it provided a velvety texture to Mapplethorpe’s works like “Ken Moody and Robert Sherman” (1984) and the artist’s final self-portrait in 1988. In both examples, the grey-scale spectrum of his work opens up considerably, exploding a dramatic range of ghostly lights and shadows that haunt the photograph’s surface like some unseen kinetic force of bristling photons.

Composition is incredibly important to Mapplethorpe; he was an obsessive formalist who framed his subjects — whether people or sexually suggestive flowers — into rigidly ordered spaces. The effect is brilliant when applied to tulips or a portrait of his close friend and counterculture favorite, Patti Smith, but the impact is a bit more dire when it comes to his photographs of Black men.

“Calla Lily” (1986), gelatin silver print, 48.9 x 49.1 cm (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Much ink has already been spilt investigating Mapplethorpe’s relationshipor lack thereof — to Blackness. There’s no need to recapitulate every one of these arguments, but suffice it to say that the artist projected his sexual desires onto his Black subjects in a manner tantamount to fetishized racism. The artist’s biographer, Patricia Morrisroe, said as much in a 2014 interview with Dazed. She recalled: “He found the n word sexually simulating, and used it liberally in relation to his lovers and models. It was as if he didn’t see them as people but as objects — something that’s obvious in his photographs.” “I can’t look at the pictures without reflecting on the backstory, which is not a pretty one.”

“Phillip Prioleau” (1982), gelatin silver print, 38.4 x 38.9 cm (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Mapplethorpe’s urge to classicize Black bodies into rigid, muscular geometries provides an aesthetic without substance. The artist’s most famous and controversial photo, “Man in Polyester Suit” (1980) is emblematic. As the exhibition notes in its wall text, critics have claimed that the image reinforces stereotypes about Black masculinity, working-class impropriety, and aggressive sexuality. With the subject’s face outside the frame, it’s the semi-erect penis slipping out of his pants zipper that becomes the focus. The subject of this photo is Milton Moore, who Mapplethorpe’s biographer once described as “perhaps the great love of his life.” Yet the artist often called him a “primitive.” Reflecting back on their relationship, Moore has said, “I think he saw me like a monkey in a zoo.” The phallus thus became a projection of Mapplethorpe’s blinkered eroticism and his willingness to dehumanize his Black subjects, even the ones he loved.

Writing about Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith once prophesied that the artist would be “condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist.” She was right. Even with the Guggenheim’s full autopsy report on view, Mapplethorpe remains a problematic figure in photography.

“Untitled” (1973), six dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroids), in painted plastic mounts and acrylic frame, 9.5 x 7.3 cm each; 27.6 x 28.7 x 6.7 cm overall (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Part one of Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now continues through July 10 at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Part two will run from July 24 to January 5, 2020. This exhibition was organized by associate curators Lauren Hinkson and Susan Thompson, with curatorial assistant Levi Prombaum.

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.

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