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Famous Anus: How Robert Mapplethorpe Made Photography the Equal of Painting 

Wednesday, Apr 13 2016

For someone as in love with the human face as Robert Mapplethorpe, choosing to photograph a fully hooded subject might sound curious — at first.

The erotic dehumanization of some forms of BDSM play erases individuality — it could be anyone inside that full-body rubber suit — but Mapplethorpe's lens effectively transforms the anonymous figure into a face. The viewer's eye scans over the subject, registering a patch of light on a shoulder or a tube projecting from a masked mouth as if they were dimples or ears. Similarly, the image of a clenched fist next to a prominent phallus, testing the tensile strength of the underwear holding it in, takes on the intensity of a portrait where the eyes seem to stare straight at you.

At least that's one way to look at his beautifully rendered erotica. It wasn't the same a quarter-century ago when Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina — a state battling the specter of queer bodies in public places then as much as now — denounced Mapplethorpe on the floor of the Senate. "Look at the pictures!" Helms thundered.

That phrase, forever connecting the artist and "known homosexual" to controversy, now serves as the subtitle to Randy Barbato's HBO documentary. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures chronicles the Queens-born artist's almost frictionless ascent through the art world during the 1970s and '80s, from an unhappy loner at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to a period living with rocker Patti Smith in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, to a phase documenting gay S&M clubs, to charming European royalty.

While provocateurs like Mapplethorpe contributed to the politically motivated diminution of federal subsidies for the arts, the documentary — along with two companion exhibits in Los Angeles, at the Getty Center and at LACMA — demonstrates the degree to which he was responsible for elevating photography from an undervalued, mostly commercial medium to a fine art on par with painting and sculpture. Neither show will travel to the Bay Area, but you have until July 31 to make the trip — and it's entirely worth it.

Noting the unusual arrangement of two institutions in the same city staging simultaneous retrospectives of one artist, Getty Associate Curator Paul Martineau sums up the division as "Apollonian versus Dionysian." In practice, that reference to the Nietzschean fragmentation of artistic consciousness translates into a breakdown of periods: LACMA's show focuses on the young and hedonistic Mapplethorpe, the Dionysian — or, as Fran Lebowitz puts it in the film, Mapplethorpe as a "ruined cupid" — while the Getty dwells on the artist as a perfectionist, the master who faced a premature death from AIDS at 42 and pressed his rapidly aging body into service in one of the most extraordinary self-portraits ever taken, fingers curled over a skull-head cane as his silvering head floats in the background.

The two shows, winnowed from the Getty's five vaults' worth of Mapplethorpe prints and artifacts, took a longer-than-average five years to put together. (The HBO documentary, in which Martineau and other curators appear at length, began later.) The Mapplethorpe that emerges is not always pretty, either. Vain, self-absorbed, and untroubled by his habit of using people, the photographer's jealousy led him to treat his brother Edward — Mapplethorpe's assistant and eventual caretaker, and a photographer in his own right — very cruelly. And his relationship with Sam Wagstaff, the established curator and tastemaker who became Mapplethorpe's patron, was turbulent at best. Martineau confessed to hesitation at taking on the project for fear that he would come to loathe his subject as a person.

But the work speaks for itself, from the collages at LACMA that sneak in erotic images culled from 1960s fitness magazines to Mapplethorpe's Polaroid period to his late obsession with calla lilies. The stars are there: Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry, Candy Darling — the full spectrum of late-'70s and early-'80s New York illuminati, sliding past Peter Berlin and Tom of Finland into now-obscure figures of a bygone gay Manhattan. A particularly arresting photograph depicts the Dutch artist Peter van de Klashorst, bare-chested and pouty and with dirt under his fingernails, as boyishly dangerous as Carl Van Vechten's famous author photo of a young Truman Capote in bitchy repose. And of course there is Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe's best friend and lover in the 1970s, with whom he was united by poverty, drive, and extraordinary cheekbones. Although treated cursorily in Look at the Pictures, she's more prominent at LACMA. (It's a good thing that Patti Smith has won so much acclaim in her own right. There's no worse fate for a woman that brilliant than to languish as some man's muse.) Lisa Lyon, the first female bodybuilder and Mapplethorpe's true muse after Smith moved to Detroit, doesn't quite retain her dignity to that extent. Stunningly androgynous, she comes off as a Barbie with a toned, borderline male physique, dolled up in various costumes — a worthy subject until Mapplethorpe eventually discarded her in pursuit of the perfect black penis.

And the BDSM images, while discreetly placed, are a wonderful time capsule. (If you're wondering how a bar with a dress code as strict as The Mine Shaft let someone bring a camera in, it didn't. Mapplethorpe recreated the club scenes later, in his studio.) In any case, it's as if he lowered a camera into the previously unexplored darkness at the bottom of the ocean and caught a previously unknown world of anglerfish fellating giant clams in the abyss. My favorite photograph — and many other people's as well — is of the photographer turning around to face the camera with a bullwhip up his ass. It's shocking as hell, but beautiful in its composition, like fellow provocateur (and Jesse Helms foil) Andres Serrano's Piss Christ.

But it's not all phalluses, anuses, and famous commissions. Even some of Mapplethorpe's failures can be instructive in revealing who he was.

The combined portraits of eight prominent New York gallerists, for instance, read like the ass-kissing move of a striver. According to Martineau, Wagstaff habitually purchased his protégé's work to "reward the galleries for taking a chance" on the young artist. Knowing that art world figures like Holly Solomon wouldn't have looked at Mapplethorpe twice had his mentor not vouched for him, the gallerist photographs look even more scheming — and besides, Mapplethorpe was better at eating ass than kissing it. For their part, the late-period, gravity-defying compositions of calla lilies and tulips, printed in color when Mapplethorpe could finally afford it, could almost redeem the photographer in Sen. Helms' mind. They certainly redeemed photography in the art world's mind: Always bristling at the low prices his images fetched compared with his peers in painting and sculpture, Mapplethorpe worked until he was simply too ill to continue, and in so doing won lavish retrospectives in the late 1980s — shows that courted controversy after his death in 1989, but also exalted his chosen medium.

Wagstaff's posthumous reward at the Getty is an accompanying exhibit of his personal photography collection ("The Thrill of the Chase") uniting him in death with his erstwhile lover amid a sea of Man Rays and Peter Hujars. But if you want to stroll into LACMA's companion exhibit, "Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015," it's better to see that one first. While comprehensive in its take on three centuries of men's fashion, it suffers from a near-total lack of focus — and staring too long at Mapplethorpe's depiction of rigid sartorial codes will pollute your eye.

On my way out of the Getty, I bought a set of 20 Mapplethorpe postcards, of which at least seven would have been illegal to mail until the late 1950s, owing to the anti-obscenity Comstock Laws. We've come a long way in our appreciation of his work, but it wasn't necessarily fated to be so just because a Mapplethorpe show no longer attracts the ire of the Moral Majority. In spite of his associations with the Max's Kansas City smart set, Mapplethorpe came close to suffering a worse fate, like that of the sex clubs he frequented: being forgotten. Well into his career, his work was still regarded as disposable ephemera, its market value miniscule compared to his contemporaries working in other media. Jesse Helms couldn't get perversion off his mind, but in Look at the Pictures, Fran Lebowitz herself admits she owned a few Mapplethorpe photographs, but chucked them out when she moved.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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