Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now (Part 2) @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 7 photographers, on view in a series of connected exhibition rooms on the 4th floor of the museum. This exhibition was organized by Lauren Hinkson and Susan Thompson, with Levi Prombaum.

The following photographers have been included, with the number of works, their processes, and dates as background:

  • Rotimi Fani-Kayode: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1987, 1989, 6 chromogenic prints, 1987-1989, 1989
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1987, 1988, 1 gelatin silver print with metal eyelets and graphite, 1990, 2 chromogenic prints, 1996, 1 collage of inkjet prints, acrylic, silk, and other ephemera, 2018
  • Glenn Ligon: 1 set of 91 offset prints and 78 text panels, 1991-1993
  • Robert Mapplethorpe: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1976, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1 set of 4 dye diffusion transfer prints in painted acrylic mounts, 1973, 2 gelatin silver prints in artist’s frames, 1974
  • Zanele Muholi: 5 gelatin silver prints, 2011, 2012, 2018, 1 chromogenic print triptych, 2009
  • Catherine Opie: 7 black-and-white photographs, 1999, 5 chromogenic prints, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2004, 2007, 1 inkjet print, 2012
  • Paul Mpagi Sepuya: 1 chromogenic print, 2011, 8 inkjet prints, 2017

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Trying to define the edges of an artist’s legacy is a tricky task. With the benefit of a few decades of space to provide some demystifying distance, it is often possible to take stock of an artist’s entire output and make some critical judgments about which bodies of work or individual pieces stand out and remain important, both in the context of the times in which they were made and in the years hence. But what is more difficult is to understand the lines of influence, inspiration, and reaction that find their roots in the artist’s ideas, and to trace those paths of direct and indirect causation (as opposed to more amorphous artistic osmosis or independent invention) that emerge. Simplistically, legacies can of course be both positive and negative, and for an artist like Robert Mapplethorpe who often found himself at the nexus of cultural controversy in the 1980s, the push and pull of responses to his art has led to a legacy that is richly debatable.

Earlier this year, the Guggenheim embarked on a two-part investigation of Mapplethorpe’s complex legacy. The first half (reviewed here) provided a survey-style reassessment of Mapplethorpe’s career, while the second half, on view now, steps forward and grapples with the issues of his ongoing influence via a group of artists who have engaged with Mapplethorpe’s aesthetics directly or with similar subject matter. While the first exhibit was in many ways an organizing, coalescing, and paring down of the well-known essentials of Mapplethorpe’s work, this show uses just a handful of his images as a framing point for a dialogue with more opportunities for new insights.

One of the challenges we face in re-evaluating Mapplethorpe is that we must acknowledge that broad societal attitudes have evolved over time, and the works he made in one era are now being reconsidered (and judged) with alternate contemporary perspectives. If there was one key aesthetic takeaway from the first part of this exhibit, it was the power of Mapplethorpe’s consistent and enduring classicism – regardless of his subject matter (including himself), and across nearly all aspects of his mature work, his approach was meticulously controlled and ordered. But what many remember about Mapplethorpe’s photographs is not the mannered beauty of this painstaking artistic rigor, but the shocking-for-the-time depiction of homoerotic desire, S&M play, the black male nude, and to a lesser extent, the muscular power to be found in the female nude. At the time, he was given credit (and intense hyperventilating criticism) for bringing marginalized and underrepresented subcultures out into the mainstream art world.

But as time has passed, our world has become incrementally more inclusive and accepting, and the shock value of Mapplethorpe’s subjects has meaningfully dimmed. With this outrage largely stripped away, Mapplethorpe’s essential perfectionism becomes central – his photographic craftsmanship remains indelibly impressive, but his vantage point also leaves behind some rumbling undercurrents of unbalanced power dynamics that look increasingly troublesome to modern eyes.

The few works by Mapplethorpe included this second show set up these questions. In particular, a male nude from 1979 sets the tone. In it, a nude black man sits on a chair that has been wrapped with drapery to look like a stone pedestal; he sits as sculpture or statuary, his muscular body and dispassionate expression balanced by the central obviousness of his penis, the doubled angles of his arms and legs reinforcing that centrality. In this one picture, many of the lingering issues that the rest of the show engages are raised – specifically, the nuances of what happens when bodies are seen as objects (sexual or otherwise, and in particular black ones), and how the agency of many of Mapplethorpe’s models has been usurped, creating a white controlling black relationship that appears alternatively reductive, fetishistic, and even racist.

The show uses this lead in as the jumping off point for introducing the work of half a dozen artists who have, in a sense, been forced to play on the artistic playing field that Mapplethorpe, in all his controversial fame, laid out. Some were already working as artists in the late 1980s when Mapplethorpe was still alive, and so their responses are more immediate in terms of artistically processing what Mapplethorpe was showing and then making work that reframed the ideas and better addressed the questions the artists themselves were interested in. Others are a generation or more removed from Mapplethorpe, so his influence is more diffuse and their responses are more filtered through the changing times.

Glenn Ligon’s contribution to the show directly responds to Mapplethorpe’s collection of black male nudes from 1986 (entitled The Black Book) with his own work from half a dozen years later. In it, he reproduces roughly 90 of Mapplethorpe’s portraits of black men and then interleaves more than 75 text panels, each of which is a direct response to the imagery. As installed here, the images and text interact forcefully, the formal words of critics, scholars, academics, curators, and historians intermingling with more casual quotes from the models themselves and bar patrons. The result is a systematic study of the larger artistic backdrop to the pictures and the range of issues that were left largely outside the mainstream discussion and analysis of the work. It interrupts the images with a spectrum of pointed and well-argued critiques, observations, and topics worth rethinking: the swirls of hedonism, desire, and sexual readiness, the modes of exploitation, the ongoing representation of blackness as “other”, the reduction of the models to sexual objects, the abstracting and classifying bodies, Mapplethorpe’s obsessiveness, and many others. Ligon’s work successfully dissects and reframes the photographs, fronting incisive considerations and vantage points that Mapplethorpe either overlooked or disregarded.

Both Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Lyle Ashton Harris were making art in the late 1980s, so their proximity to Mapplethorpe’s influence is clear. But their artistic response to the layered issues of blackness, homosexuality, identity, and cultural/historical contexts was to deliberately turn inward, making self-portraits that sought to celebrate the rich personal energy that Mapplethorpe’s approach had drained away. For Fani-Kayode, the fullness of the diaspora experience rings through his pictures – the iconography of his Yoruba heritage is mixed with fruits, flowers, African masks, and other symbolic forms and poses, the results touching on his sense of being a outsider, his spirituality, and his homoerotic identity. For Harris, self-presentation took a slightly different form, in early white-face performances that upend our hardened definitions of gender and race. An extra-large print from 1990 finds the artist walking alone through a rocky landscape; the accompanying quote from Frantz Fanon states that “in the world though which I travel I am endlessly creating myself,” centering the creation of identity within rather than imposing it from the outside (in the way that Mapplethorpe was operating.)

Chronologically, Catherine Opie sits next in line, her black and white work from the late 1990s made as a direct response to Mapplethorpe’s own S&M work. But unlike the stylized and often provocative posing in Mapplethorpe’s pictures, Opie’s photographs feel intensely intimate, the cropped down details of piercings, ropes, chains, and dripping blood resolutely physical and immediate. Some of her earlier self-portraits (in color) perhaps borrow some of Mapplethorpe’s famous formality, but again, they cut much deeper, from the DYKE tattoo on the neck and the Pervert mark carved into her chest, to the re-imagined stick figure family with two lesbian parents scraped onto her back.

The contemporary responses to Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic legacy fall to Zanele Muholi and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and while both provide distant visual echoes to Mapplethorpe, at their core, they come from vastly different mindsets than their host here. While aside from Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe’s sitters are largely deliberately abstracted into elegantly classical anonymity, Muholi’s portraits of South African lesbians (from her Faces and Phases series) are just the opposite – her pictures celebrate individuals and their stories of tenderness, individuality, perseverance, and survival. Similarly, while Mapplethorpe made many indelible portraits of himself in various guises and styled as classic types (the machine gun toting rebel, the devil, the banker/leather, the masculine/feminine etc.), Muholi’s self-portraits are less about iconoclastic archetypes and more about imaginative self-discovery and self-definition – using a dizzying array of found materials, she inventively engages with history, creating hybrid personalities and humbly powerful mashups that go far beyond easy abstractions, reclaiming stereotypes that others once applied.

Sepuya’s works similarly invert and twist other Mapplethorpe aesthetic tenets. Using complex combinations of mirrors and rephotography, Sepuya trades Mapplethorpe’s sharp clarity for layers of visual misdirection and uncertainty, and when he decides to enter the frame himself as a subject, it is often the camera that takes center stage rather than his own face or body. Just like Mapplethorpe’s, Sepuya’s works are actively interested in examinations of queer desire and male beauty, but his approach is far more sensitive and tender, even when he adds in a splash of more explicit posing. Also, his combinations of black and white skin are less about formal tonal properties or balanced opposites, and more about the richness of touch and interaction; Sepuya always seems present in these pictures, while Mapplethorpe stands aloof or at arm’s length, even when photographing himself.

In many ways, this show clarifies Mapplethorpe’s enduring contributions and his aura of influence, but it also signals that artists have generally absorbed the lessons found in his work and moved on. Every one of the artists included in this show was overtly aware of Mapplethorpe’s historical presence, but also found ways to take the questions that lay at the heart of Mapplethorpe’s work and make them their own. Each seems to have said “I see you” but then decided to follow a related but ultimately alternate path. Perhaps what we should conclude is that Mapplethorpe initiated a necessary splintering and expansion of a rigidly static cultural framework, his initial brash step through the door making room for others to jump over him and find their own truths.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Given the group show format of the exhibit, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Catherine Opie, Glenn Ligon, Lyle Ashton Harris, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Robert Mapplethorpe, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Zanele Muholi, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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