Robert Mapplethorpe: Transition to Contemporary Art

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Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd.

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By Matt Damsker

The controversies surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography seem like vague moralistic squabbles in the two-plus decades since his death. While his notoriety soared as his homoerotic and bondage-oriented images scandalized the political establishment of the 1980s, time has only affirmed the formal beauty and distinctiveness of his varied black-and-white portraiture. The classic Mapplethorpe photo--from the organic celebration of a floral still life to the stark study of a robust human form--stands apart from its contemporaries as night from day, investigating the austere classicism of black-and-white with rigorous control and purity of vision, never trendy, always frank, daring, often beautiful as well as brutal in its declarations.

Mapplethorpe’s work is highly stylized yet never fussy or precious. His subjects are posed powerfully against neutral ground, light gracefully shading into dark, sometimes against brick walls that add textural and incidental interest. But in nearly every case there is no imposition of drama or narrative; Mapplethorpe courts instead the ineffable gestures of nature: the unfurling of a doomed floral blossom, preserved perfectly, eternally, in a silver print, or the muscular presence of a human form, often nude, posed in all its vitality, as if straining against the bonds of flesh, time and tradition. His floral studies are either close-up delineations or lovingly staged designs in which vase, stalk and flowers are apotheosized. His nudes are posed for what they are, or how they might choose to be presented--as sexual object, perhaps, or theatrically self-defined, but always as exemplars of form and humanity, intimately explored but not exploited by the artist.

The photos in this exhibition are sufficiently diverse to define Mapplethorpe through his brief but productive heyday in the 1980s, when his command of subject matter and his choice of models reflected a mature sensibility that began to embrace its mortality. Thus, the floral studies from the late 1980s, when Mapplethorpe was battling AIDS, are poignant visual essays in impermanence that evoke the context of the era’s health crisis even as they triumph at face value. The portraits of female nudes, especially of body-builder Lisa Lyon, are paeans to prime physicality, the sinewy ripplings and perfected physique that Mapplethorpe fetishized.

Indeed, the fetishistic aspects of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre tend to overshadow, in the public eye, his larger dedication to form and his disciplined mastery of the studio. His minimal, yet never starved, settings are in conscious opposition to the extravagance of ‘80s boom-time culture, when painting re-emerged as a bloated symbol of Wall Street wealth and status, and visual artists became the equivalent of rock stars. At the height of his briefly lived fame and physical powers, Mapplethorpe exemplified--ironically, perhaps, given his often shocking subject matter--a certain timeless tastefulness, a rejection of showiness and excess in favor of controlled tonality, unforced effect and the primacy of the photographic image’s ability to confront the viewer with unmediated reality and artful focus.

For if Mapplethorpe’s work is about anything, it is about the power of the artist to enhance reality without trumping it up or drowning it in affectation. The deliberateness of Mapplethorpe’ s approach, the directness and ease with which he frames his subjects, guiding our eye without overwhelming our gaze, are marks of an artist always in control of his medium, an artist who sees infinite possibilities in the simplest object and the essential physicality of the most complicated personage. For Mapplethorpe, devotion to a seemingly narrow range of stylization doesn’t seem constricting so much as liberating. In his studio, he could confront and be confronted by life, serving it up to his audience to startling, or soothing, or simply beautiful effect, imprinted in every case with his unmistakable, searching, searing point of view.