Robert Mapplethorpe @Gladstone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 118 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in Gallery 1, Gallery 2, the middle viewing room, the vestibule, and the connecting hallway. The show was curated by Arthur Jafa.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 89 gelatin silver prints, 24×20, 20×16 inches (or the reverse), in editions of 10+2AP or 15+3AP, 1976-1989 (all of these prints are estate-stamped posthumous prints)
  • 27 Polaroid prints, roughly 6×4, 5×4, 4×3 inches (or the reverse), unique, 1971-1974
  • 2 Cibachrome prints, 24×20 inches, in editions of 3+1AP, 1985

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: All artists go through a public period of reconsideration after they die, but in the thirty-some years since Robert Mapplethorpe’s death, his legacy has been reinterpreted much more fully than most. There are plenty of ways to see Mapplethorpe’s career – through the lens of controversy and provocation, through his sexuality and private life, through his classical formalism, through his subject matter choices, and through the aesthetic differences between his Polaroids, his black and white work, and his color work, to name just a few.

In just the last decade, New York gallery shows have been organized under the themes of “50 Americans” (in 2011, where one Mapplethorpe image was selected by a person from each state, reviewed here), “Self Portraits” (in 2013, reviewed here), and “Saints and Sinners” (in 2014, with pairings hung against black and white painted walls, reviewed here), and the Guggenheim hosted a two-part survey “Implicit Tensions” (in 2019, reviewed here and here), which covered not only a tight edit of Mapplethorpe’s work, but the broad sweep of his influence on other contemporary photographers.

One angle on Mapplethorpe that has been less thoroughly researched and discussed is his relationship to the Black body, where desire, formalism, objectification, and various stereotypes come together in uneasy ways. With artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa as the curator of this show, I had hoped Jafa would dive into and actively wrestle with that complexity, especially given that we are in a moment when the agency in an artistic exchange (and what that power difference can lead to) has become more apparent. But while there are plenty of Black bodies on view in this show, Jafa hasn’t built this show around a direct study of Blackness in Mapplethorpe’s work, but instead taken a more tangential approach, via sequences of pictures that create unlikely resonances and connections between them.

Most of Jafa’s visual themes come together in two or three Mapplethorpe pictures hung as a series, and are often constructed in response to formal echoes or similarities, regardless of the divergence or explicitness of the subject matter. He strings together v-shaped angles from spread legs and hip bones, gathers together images of backs, and ties together shadows cast across an erect penis, a windowed building façade, and the upturned curves of a body. He connects the eerie purple color in a flower study and a nude torso, makes visual associations between flowers and penises, and sees androgyny in various forms.

These small refrains circle around the various galleries, creating a kind of undulating visual rhythm. He finds parallels in erect penises and the curves of horses backs, follows dappled light on skin and flowers, and sees limpness in flaccid penises and a drooping amaryllis. He creates an echo between weathered skin and floral petals, chases the thin forms of orchid petals and dangling fingers, and repeatedly finds geometries and angles in pairings of bodies and flowers. Jafa’s choices range from the playful to the boldly intense, always keeping us off guard and forcing us to see even the most provocative of Mapplethorpe’s nudes in the context of highly controlled compositional arrangement. In Jafa’s hands, a craggy mountain and a hulking shoulder suddenly connect to each other, a rocky waterfall in Puerto Rico somehow bears resemblance to both a shaggy beard and a penis, and a fisted ass and a close-up tulip have more in common than we might have ever imagined.

Mostly what these insightful chains of pictures reveal is something we already knew – Mapplethorpe had an extremely consistent eye, and even his most controversial and private images were seen with the same pared down clarity that he applied to still lifes, portraits, and nudes (of all genders and races). While Jafa isn’t afraid of exposing us to genitalia from a range of vantage points or placing Princess Margaret between two bare asses (one Black, one white), his sequences fit all of Mapplethorpe’s work into one remarkably smooth aesthetic continuum, rather than singling out the more explicit works as something different or special. The other thing this Jafa edit highlights is how deep Mapplethorpe’s body of work really is – many of these images (especially some of the more candid Polaroids) might normally be considered secondary or tertiary works in the grand scheme of the artist’s output, but they generally hold up well when seen inside this flow.

As a collector, a show filled with largely fully priced posthumous prints makes me wary, but seeing some of these more obscure Mapplethorpe images remixed in a new way was still an engaging exercise. To my eye, the deeper we dig into Mapplethorpe’s archive, the more interconnected all of his work is. He saw formal order and symmetry in nearly everything he photographed, and perceptive shows like this one reinforce how those arrangements took shape in unexpected ways.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $10000 to $175000. Mapplethorpe’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images up for sale every year. Recent auction prices have generally ranged between roughly $5000 for his lesser known works to more than $700000 for his most rare and iconic images.

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