Mapplethorpe was many things, but not a voyeur

Self-portrait, 1980. Photos by Robert Mapplethorpe except noted.

Artist. Perfectionist. Angel. Devil. Creator. Lightning Rod. Careerist. There are many words to describe photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work is currently on view in an unprecedented dual exhibition presented at LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Voyeur, however, is not one of them. Mapplethorpe, who defiantly used himself in some of his most famous photographs depicting homosexual sex and sado-masochism, made it clear that he was not an outsider.

"Being an artist is to learn about yourself," Mapplethorpe said. And so, rather than observe at a distance, he used photography to document dark worlds that he himself was exploring. "To me, S and M means Sex and Magic," he says in a quote at LACMA's exhibit, which opened Sunday. Not everyone will agree with that definition, but Mapplethorpe's work is nothing if not brutally honest. But beyond the social impact of the most controversial images he made, his artistry, technical skill and quest for perfection in composition and lighting elevated his work to a level beyond the reach of many.

Joe, NYC, 1978.

The exhibits consist of work taken from the extensive Mapplethorpe archive, recently acquired jointly by LACMA and the Getty Research Institute, and private and museum collections. The shows include early pieces for which he is not well-known: assemblage, paintings, drawings, collage, album covers, and hand-strung jewelry are among the work created before he found photography. In fact, in his early years, when he started attending Pratt Institute at the age of 16, photography did not interest him at all. He did not think it could be considered art. It wasn't until he borrowed a Polaroid camera from a friend while living with Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel that he began to experiment with photography and realized it was an art form that had potential.

For Mapplethorpe, his relationships were key to supporting and propelling his art forward. Starting with Patti Smith, who was his first muse, his lovers became his subjects and their portraits document his growth as an artist. When he met the art collector Sam Wagstaff, they fell in love, but Mapplethorpe admits in the upcoming HBO documentary, "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures," that he is not sure their relationship would have blossomed had Wagstaff not been wealthy. But the two helped each other with their struggles: Mapplethorpe encouraged Wagstaff to live as an openly gay man. Wagstaff was devoted to Mapplethorpe, and bought him a large-format Hasselblad camera and a loft on Bond Street and supported his artistic growth.

Those square Hasselblad portraits reveal an artist's eye for composition and the technical skills to light his subjects in an ethereal glow that became his trademark. His nudes are classical in pose, perfectly lit and composed. His choice of models was impeccable as he searched for perfection in the human form (including, as mentioned in the film, his search for "the perfect black penis").

But more than anything, he wanted to be famous and he had the business sense to figure out how to make it happen. Just as he was relentless in his urge to create, he pursued fame and success with the same determination. For many artists, that business acumen is a mystery but for Mapplethorpe it seems instinctual.

When Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, he seemed to redouble his creative efforts, not letting a day go by without photographing something. At the same time, he had one eye towards the future of his legacy, telling friends to talk about him after he was gone, to tell his story and stories. In 1988 he created the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to take care of his archived works, provide support for photography and help fund AIDS research. The foundation recently designated LACMA and the Getty Research Institute as the new homes of all of his work, which was the motivation for this ground-breaking exhibition partnership.

The documentary, which screened at LACMA last week and will show on HBO in early April, provides another riveting piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that was Robert Mapplethorpe. Using previously unseen historical footage and Mapplethorpe's own words, recorded by Patricia Morrisroe for her 1995 biography of the artist, along with interviews that are touching, funny and heart-wrenching with his younger brother Edward, who was his assistant during the 80's, and gallery owners, lovers, models and friends who knew him before he died in 1989 at the age of 42, it attempts to make sense of the complicated man behind the work. At once entertaining, sensational and profoundly sad--kind of like Mapplethorpe himself--it accomplishes a common goal of the filmmakers and the exhibits: to humanize an artist demonized by conservative politicians and forever linked in the public's eye to controversy.

edward-mapplethorpe.jpgEdward Mapplethorpe at last week's LACMA screening. Photo by Iris Schneider.

He is described in the film as "chasing something" and determined to show the struggle within between good and evil. But the chase was a struggle itself. "It's hard to be happy if you like things to be perfect," he said. (On a personal note, it turns out that Mapplethorpe and his 5 brothers and sisters grew up in Floral Park, N.Y. in a working class Catholic family that went to church every Sunday, only 10 blocks from my own childhood home. We went to the same high school, Martin Van Buren, where he graduated a year ahead of me.)

The Getty and LACMA shows complement each other but have different missions. The LACMA work is a retrospective that shows his evolution as an artist, starting before 1970 with his early collages and assemblages and jewelry he made with his hands, while trying to find his true voice. It is revealing and surprising, showing pieces made before he began his controversial exploration of sex and homosexuality on the fringes of society in New York in the 70's when the city's Village and meatpacking district bath houses were still unregulated and group sex, S and M, and casual unprotected liaisons spilled out onto the streets.

His classic nudes, as beautiful as Greek statues, still life studies of flowers and perfectly lit and composed portraits of the people in his life present some of the many facets of Robert Mapplethorpe. The enormity of his archive is impressive to say the least, especially given the short length of his life. "The sheer productivity did impress me," says Britt Salvesen, the LACMA curator for photography, who has been working on the show for 4 1/2 years. Looking through his work also "made me realize that he had the concepts fully formed in his mind. Some photographers discover as they go but he had the images composed in his mind...You can never mistake a Mapplethorpe work."

The show at the Getty, which opened March 15, attempts to add context to the controversy engendered by "The Perfect Moment," the Mapplethorpe exhibition that opened in 1988 in Philadelphia and caused a political firestorm when Jesse Helms led efforts to close it down, waving the X photographs in the air as he addressed the Senate, saying "some people call Robert Mapplethorpe an artist. I think he's a jerk." Those efforts caused the show's Corcoran Gallery opening to be canceled. Eventually the courts decreed that the work was not obscene and the show opened to record-breaking crowds. At the Getty, those somewhat disturbing works are included along with materials from that period addressing the controversy, along with portraits, nudes and floral studies. Although those explicit photographs may be Mapplethorpe's most well-known, and probably catapulted him into the fame he craved, these two current shows go a long way to fleshing out the work of an artist who never really wanted to be a photographer.

Larry and Bobby kissing, 1979

Patti Smith, 1978

Parrot Tulips, 1988

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