Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A survey show consisting of 68 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a series of 5 connected rooms on the fourth floor of the museum.

The show includes the following:

  • 48 gelatin silver prints, 1974-1988
  • 2 gelatin silver print diptychs, 1977, 1978
  • 1 gelatin silver print triptych in custom wood frame, 1974
  • 2 gelatin silver prints in custom wood frames, 1974
  • 1 gelatin silver print triptych, 1978
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, 1981
  • 4 platinum-palladium prints, 1984-1985
  • 1 set of 6 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid) in painted plastic mounts and acrylic frame, 1973
  • 1 set of 4 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid) in painted plastic mounts, 1973
  • 1 set of 3 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), 1977
  • 1 diptych of gelatin silver print and mirror, 1978
  • 1 set of 3 spray painted paper bags with collages of magazine clippings, 1971
  • 1 magazine clipping collage on faux wood backing, 1970
  • 2 gelatin silver print in artist’s frames, 1973, 1974
  • 1 sculpture with gelatin silver print, 1973

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The title of this abbreviated survey show of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe – Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now – lets us know that its curators want us to look at (and analyse) these images not from the perspective of when they were made, which is typically what we might do, but from our own current contemporary vantage point. It asks us to step back from the mindset of the 1980s and early 1990s that provided the original charged context for the works, and to effectively recontextualize them, absent the notion of what they were reacting to at the time. At the core of this request lies the hope that we might find new and more modern ways to reconnect with Mapplethorpe, perhaps tacitly admitting that we have already debated the old positions on his work to the point of exhaustion.

It is undeniably true that Mapplethorpe’s images of explicit S&M encounters, black male nudes, and androgynous sexuality feel much less controversial now than they did at the time. In the decades since he made the photographs, societal attitudes have significantly evolved, and we find ourselves in a noticeably more inclusive and accepting environment than before, especially with regard to a wide range of desires and sexual inclinations. And thanks to the Internet, our world is also much more populated with explicit erotic material, so the idea that we might be shocked by pictures of gay sex or a large erect penis seems somehow less than entirely scandalous.

But when we strip out the core personal energy that inhabits so many of Mapplethorpe’s images, what we’re largely left with is his meticulous perfectionism and the elegant classicism that he applied to virtually all his subjects. And it is this common stylized aesthetic that comes through most strongly in this sampler show. As we wander through the rooms, we can tick off the pictures we already know well, from the flowers and nudes to the portraits of artists and the S&M setups, all of which are composed with the same underlying sense of exacting control. Many of these pictures are what we might reasonably call Mapplethorpe’s greatest hits, while others are somewhat lesser known images in the various subgenres, in the mode of worthy variations on already understood themes. For the most part in these sections, what we find is comfortable reaffirmation of the match between the photographs and our now-ingrained expectations.

A looser section of early works (from the early 1970s) provides one of the show’s more unexpected highlights; the selections show Mapplethorpe working through ideas in more raw and experimental ways than in his later images. He puts gay porn behind painted paper potato bags, playing with the confessional motif of the mesh. He alternates between images of models and actual sculpture exploring the nature of poses, displaying the intermingled results in colored plastic frames. He houses other photographs in smoothly honed wooden frames, creating film strip and Polaroid print shapes in the hard medium. And he builds an altar-like sculpture out of a barrel and a cross, and then photographs himself naked sitting on it like a toilet, his tortured relationship with his own Catholicism made brashly physical.

These early efforts then connect to a broad selection of Mapplethorpe’s inventive self-portraits that are sprinkled throughout the show, and while they aren’t pulled out as a discrete unit, they provide a kind of connective tissue that runs through the whole exhibit. Early Polaroid efforts find Mapplethorpe playfully evading the camera, using unbalanced compositions and blur to avoid direct confrontation with the lens. His late 1970s diptych of just his hands, one in the formal shirt and watch, the other in a studded bracelet and fingerless leather gloves, starts to wrestle with multiple facets of his personality. His infamous self-portrait with the bullwhip up his ass comes next chronologically, boldly testing the edges of his public persona and bringing more graphic imagery into the broader cultural conversation.

By 1980, a set of three self-portraits finds him playing roles more deliberately, from the masculine (in a leather jacket with a dangling cigarette) to the feminine (in drag, in makeup and a fur), with an intermediate androgynous stop in between. A year later, he’s moved toward more 80s-era formality, with angled echoes of V-shapes in his haircut, his leather jacket, and surrounding striped geometries. From there, he gathers up even more charged symbols in a self-portrait with a machine gun and a pentagram, and by the end of his life, the shadows start to creep in, with Mapplethorpe shooting himself in jittering multiple exposures like a ghost, and then later, when AIDS had made him gaunt, posed with a skull headed cane. Seen as a linked progression, the searching creativity Mapplethorpe applied to himself as a subject is brilliantly evident, the aggregation of images over his career offering a round and complex study in photographic self-examination.

It’s seems fair to ask the question of why Mapplethorpe is back at the head of the line when so many other deserving photographers are due for a museum show like this one. The answer likely lies in our own 21st century cultural moment, where definitions of gender, sexuality, and identity have become more inclusive and fluid, and artists of all kinds are making work that examines those looser boundaries. This show is to be followed by another this summer, where a variety of artists “will address Mapplethorpe’s complex legacy,” so in effect, Mapplethorpe is being positioned in the past tense, as one of the key artists who paved the way for today’s generation of identity explorers, either positively or negatively – he’s no longer the outrageous end point of the conversation, but a stepping stone to somewhere closer to the present.

So while thematic group shows don’t often rise to level of durable interest, the construct presented here has promise – in 1989, when Mapplethorpe died, he left behind a certain set of aesthetic landmarks and well trod roads that defined part of the artistic conversation around the hot button issues of gender, sexuality, and identity at that moment. It will be interesting to see how the Guggenheim chooses to explain what has happened in those same areas in the decades since, and which artists see Mapplethorpe as a figure that they have felt obliged to respond to (or have been influenced by) in their own work. This show thus becomes a refresher course that sets up that next set of more current conversations. In many ways, the ultimate value of this show depends on the richness of what we learn in the next one; otherwise, this precious New York museum slot could have been better given to dozens of others.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Mapplethorpe’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images up for sale every year. Prices have generally ranged between roughly $5000 for his lesser known works to more than $700000 for his most rare and iconic images.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Robert Mapplethorpe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Sarah Sze @Tanya Bonakdar

Sarah Sze @Tanya Bonakdar

JTF (just the facts): A series of installations and paintings on view in the main gallery space (which has been divided), in the two gallery spaces upstairs, in the transitional ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter