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Why You Should See Mapplethorpe at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Retrospective of the late photographer's once (and always?) controversial work runs until January

Focus: Perfection (Robert Mapplethorpe)
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Until Jan. 17, 2017

North Americans of a certain age will likely have caught their first glimpse of Robert Mapplethorpe on the evening news (back when that was a thing). In the late 1980s and early ’90s, as the first embers of the culture wars started to catch flame, social conservatives used the photographer’s work – specifically, the homoerotic and S&M content – as an example of decadence in America’s visual arts. It was the sort of thing that many, including members of the U.S. Congress, felt should not receive public funding. Shows were cancelled; charges of censorship ensued.

The front line has moved quite a bit on gay rights since then, not that Mapplethorpe himself got to see the progress: He died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42, right as controversy burned around his first major career retrospective, The Perfect Moment. (The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia curated that show but then its leaders refused to put it on; the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director were later charged with obscenity for hosting it, and found not guilty.)

More than a quarter century later we have the second retrospective. Focus: Perspective is now showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and was produced in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Times have changed enough that the show has already had a run in Los Angeles without any incidents to report. Judging by the diversity of the crowd on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon, Mapplethorpe is going mainstream. With classic Montreal cheek, the MMFA even hosted a naked tour of the exhibition (warning: link not super safe for work).

All right, then. Is everyone ready to talk like grown-ups about Mapplethorpe as an artist? Because he’s one of the late 20th century’s most notable photographers, and it’s worth getting past any hesitation around all that graphic sex.

The exhibition eases you into it anyway. Apart from some early sculptural work, you’re greeted with Mapplethorpe’s arresting portraits from the 1970s and ’80s. The middle-class kid from Queens trained his Hasselblad camera on everyone from models to celebrities, often because they commissioned him to do so. In their intimacy and psychological insight, Mapplethorpe’s portraits resemble Florentine Renaissance renditions of that era’s own bigwigs. Andy Warhol appears, with halo. Captured in profile, Paloma Picasso (daughter of Pablo) could be, say, a duchess of Urbino. Over and over again, we see Mapplethorpe’s friend and sometime roommate Patti Smith, sometimes glowing with overexposure, other times rendered with such clarity that you could count her pores. Philip Glass and Debbie Harry at their peak, too: We’re looking at an American golden age captured on 120-format film in black and white (or “soft-white greys and velvety darks,” as The New York Times put it). And as with other cultural apexes, if we missed it as it sailed by, at least we have some art to show for it.

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) Andy Warhol 1986 Gelatin silver print Image: 48.9 × 48.9 cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art and J. Paul Getty Trust 2011.30.30

As if to pound home the importance of the late 20th century, belatedly, we hear the gravitas-soaked strains of Glass’s hauntingly bleak 1982 composition Koyaanisqatsi from the next room. The walls are pink and they tell us that the theme is “the sculptural body.” Here we move below the neckline and on to other Mapplethorpian preoccupations. Like those famous Italian Humanists, Mapplethorpe brought classical notions of perfection into his depictions of the human body. He liked the phrase “Platonic ideal.” He even photographed classical statues as if they were people. Looking for a certain sculptured body type, Mapplethorpe sometimes recruited models during his trips to the gym, as a modern Michelangelo might.

Specifically, Mapplethorpe’s ideal was the African-American man, whom he felt had not been depicted often enough in Western art (at least not with much admiration). That the images, largely nudes, are beautifully composed is not in question. The problem with Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men, as Concordia University professor Mikhel Proulx put it when speaking with the campus newspaper: “I think it easy to see, when you look at the work – you are looking through the eyes of a gay white man … and so that privilege carries through in how the photograph is constructed.”

For instance, it’s difficult not to notice that Mapplethorpe’s white models got to look at the camera whereas black ones mostly go with eyes closed. (The exception: A man identified as Phillip Prioleau, said to have been a lover of Mapplethorpe’s, locks eyes with the viewer in one photo.)

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) Phillip Prioleau 1982 Gelatin silver print Image: 38.8 × 38.8 cm Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

By way of response, a plaque in the show reads: “[Mapplethorpe’s] fascination with the sexuality of these models has provoked discussions about objectification, race and power. However, these photographs can also be seen as documents of collaborative interactions and expressions of an ideal physical perfection.” (But when couldn’t you argue that the models are collaborators in an image? It still doesn’t explain why some models are treated more as subjects, and others objects – indeed, as statues.)

If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, there’s potentially more. One room in Focus: Perfection is dedicated to some of Mapplethorpe’s more explicitly sexual works, with a warning sign outside. It’s not just anatomical frankness you’ll find; some of the images therein are … let’s say penetrating. It’s certainly not going to be for everyone. But at least in in 2016, as opposed to 1989, it’s the museum visitor and not the authorities who get to make that call.

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) Poppy 1988 Dye imbibition print Image: 50.3 × 47.5 cm Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation & David Geffen Foundation

Head image credits: 

Left: Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Self-Portrait, 1980, gelatin silver print, 35.5 × 35.7 cm. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation.
Right: Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Self-Portrait, 1985, gelatin silver print, 38.7 × 38.6 cm. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation.
Both images © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Adam McDowell travelled to Montreal at the expense of Tourism Montreal. That agency had no part in the writing of this story, nor did it review or approve the content prior to publication. 


Published Tuesday, October 18th 2016

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