Examining Robert Mapplethorpe three decades later

“The thing the world is most afraid of is the penis.”

That’s the claim Jack Fritscher makes, partially on behalf of his ex-lover Robert Mapplethorpe, in the new HBO documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. The film, released parallel to an unprecedented joint exhibition of the photographer’s work at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art under the name Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, offers an opportunity to look back on his often-shocking body of work and the influence he’s had on the world of photography.

For those who weren’t alive in the ‘80s, the name “Mapplethorpe” might not have the disquieting effect it had three decades ago. The openly gay photographer shocked the art world with his brazen photographs of male sexuality, nudity, and sadomasochistic practices. As fate would have it, he rose to fame when AIDS was devastating the gay community, making his work all the more controversial.

Indeed, his photographs were jarring. A self-portrait with a whip inserted into his anus shocked the art world and non-art world alike. Portraits of black male nudes shook the status quo of “beauty.” Nudity, sex, and blatant objectification of the penis were as normal to Mapplethorpe as sunsets to Monet. He flaunted this subject matter as if to say: “This is how I live; get over it.”

When a large retrospective of his work called The Perfect Moment opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia in 1989, it caused more than a stir, proving that the world was, indeed, very afraid of penis. Conservative lawmaker Jesse Helms attempted to cut funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) because of their support of Mapplethorpe’s work. In 1990, The Perfect Moment traveled to Washington, D.C.’s Contemporary Arts Center, where museum director Dennis Barrie was subsequently arrested on charges of obscenity.

The irony is all this controversy peaked at the exact time when Mapplethorpe was at his weakest. In 1989, at the age of 42, he passed away in his home from complications due to AIDS.

Although he lived a short life, Mapplethorpe had a tremendous influence on the gay rights movement, the art world, and the medium of photography. He continued to work even as he was dying, and was obsessed with the fame, fortune, and controversy that surrounded him during his career.

Had he lived, however, he would have seen the Mapplethorpe mania dwindle. In the 27 years since his death, there have been no ambitious exhibitions of his work at any major museums until this year, with the opening of The Perfect Medium in March. During these 27 years, gay marriage became legal, the AIDS crisis declined, and many of the taboos surrounding homosexuality were broken down.

In a publication based on the show, called Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs, curator Paul Martineau states,“the authors of this volume hope that the insights presented here will bring new light and greater balance to the study of his work.” In other words, The Perfect Medium is an attempt to place Mapplethorpe’s work in a current context after being locked in a drawer for years.

The Photographs is a massive book, consisting of thousands of prints from The Perfect Medium and five essays by art critics. The most insightful observation is from Richard Meyer in an essay called “Mapplethorped” which states, “Today, the price of Mapplethorpe’s work at auction, the critical and interpretive attention it has received, and its acquisition and display by prominent museums attest to the fact that it has indeed achieved something legitimate in the history of art.”

This means that Mapplethorpe is now embedded in the canon of art history. His portraits are examined by art students for their formal beauty rather than their erotic nature, his photographs sell at auctions for upwards of $300,000 to members of the cultural elite, and museums show his work alongside other famous art. But does this mean the rest of the world has finally accepted the shocking candor of Mapplethorpe’s vision?

Self Portrait 1980 Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989 ARTIST ROOMS  Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00225
A self-portrait of Mapplethorpe, taken in 1980. Photo: Tate

This documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, gives further insight to this. It is certainly made for a mainstream audience, abandoning the sterile and official presentation of The Photographs and giving way to crass language and honesty.

The viewer is presented with some rare interviews from members of the Mapplethorpe family, including his brother and sister. In a raw and unscripted moment of vulnerability, Edward Mapplethorpe introduces himself by saying, “I am Robert Mapplethorpe’s younger brother.” He laughs nervously and diverts his eyes from the camera, as if he is not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

He and his sister claim their family was very strict and Mapplethorpe never fully admitted his homosexuality to his parents. They agree he was competitive and jealous, and his work was a source of contention in the family. His sister Nancy recalls pushing their mother around in her wheelchair at an opening of his work and the awkwardness that prevailed afterward.

Some of Mapplethorpe’s photographic subjects were also interviewed, and describe how he lured them to his apartment from bars and used flattery to persuade them to model. A few subjects claimed that they were his lovers, but others felt that he “used” them for their bodies. In the words of model Marcus Leatherdale, “To be in Robert’s world, you either had to be rich, famous, or sex.”

In contrast to these testaments, a recurring scene shows curators at the Getty and LACMA gathered around his work in reverence as if staring down at a holy shrine, their fingers tracing the meticulous composition of the images. The juxtaposition shows the duality of his work. It is appreciated — worshipped, even — in a high art context, but remains embarrassing and confrontational to those who view it from a personal level.

All in all, the most telling aspect of the Mapplethorpe resurgence is the utter lack of controversy surrounding it. An article recently published in the LA Times disagreed with a museum wall text stating that Mapplethorpe was an advocate of an “openly gay lifestyle” — and is perhaps the most inflammatory statement about the show.

In 2016, the only remnants of the hysteria are the nervous giggles from those who knew him. This time around, there are no angry politicians, protestors, or incarcerated curators. In some ways it is a bit insulting: Mapplethorpe surely would have been irked to see his work turned into sacrosanct objects in a museum. In other ways, however, it is a refreshing reminder of the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in society.

Is the world still afraid of the penis? As we march into a more progressive age, only the audience can answer that question.