Robert Mapplethorpe, Saints and Sinners @Sean Kelly

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 black and white photographs, alternately framed in white and black and matted, and hung against black and white vertically striped walls in the main gallery space and in one of the nearby offices. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, taken between 1976 and 1988; the show includes a mix of vintage and posthumous prints. Physical dimensions range from roughly 14×14 to 19×19, with edition sizes generally 10+2AP, but with a range from 3+1AP to 15+3AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s been 25 years since the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, and in that span of time, we’ve seen a nearly continuous stream of exhibits that have highlighted everything from the elementally classical to the notoriously shocking in his artistic oeuvre. With museums and galleries all over the world mounting shows of his work year after year, the challenge has increasingly become to bring a fresh approach to this now familiar imagery. Happily, this smartly edited show goes beyond the greatest hits and digs back into the estate archives, unearthing lesser known images and creating thoughtful pairings under the thematic umbrella of Saints and Sinners. While which image is the saint and which the sinner is left tantalizingly open for interpretation, the consistency of Mapplethorpe’s formal precision (across a wide variety of subject matter and even in photographs that are virtually unknown) is still profoundly impressive.

Circling the gallery, the selections display a deft combination of visual echoes and curatorial flair, with black and white tonalities often in stark, pared down opposition. Male nudes and flowers are repeatedly seen together, with muscular legs and buttocks matched with the sinuous forms of stems and petals. This masculine/feminine duality is taken a step further in a breezy portrait of Amanda Lear paired with a self portrait in drag (with fur and makeup) and in a juxtaposition of Joe in full body S&M leather and a still life close up of a patent leather stiletto heel. Other combinations play with religious overtones: Jack Walls with a crown of thorns partnered with Luco Amelio in a pagan mask, or Lisa Lyon alternately covered in leather and naked save for a marble cross on her chest. Simple echoes in the V of drapery, the curled up body of a pose, or the bisecting of a nude show Mapplethorpe at his most elegantly formal, while pairings of Frank Diaz with ram horns and Lisa Lyon with a scorpion between her legs or Mapplethorpe himself with devil horns and an orchid shadow with an eerily similar silhouette show his more playful side.

Part of what makes this show work is the ambiguity of the positive and negative; depending on your perspective, it is not at all clear which image is meant to unsettle. Is it the American flag or the pistol blast? The leather crotch shot or the policeman? The marble sculpture or the skull? The man in the black leather mask or the man in the monk’s hood? The show has a back and forth rhythm that keeps things exciting, constantly grabbing our attention and pointing it at a parallel of hand positions or a contrast of hard and soft. At the end of the journey, what comes through is the remarkable control Mapplethorpe exercised in his photographic craft, regardless of what stood before his camera. I was particularly struck by his careful management of the tonal range; background blacks, greys, and soft whites looked all the more deliberate and meticulously specific in this comparison set up. In the end, the show reinforces both breadth and coherence in Mapplethorpe’s photography, his interest in a wide variety of intimate and personal subjects and his undeviating eye for finding the exactingly harmonious formal arrangement buried in each and every one.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8500 and $100000, but this range is slightly misleading as many of the most recognizable images are NFS. Mapplethorpe’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images up for sale every year. Prices have generally ranged between a few thousand dollars for his lesser known works to more than $300000 for his most iconic images, with an outlier record price up above $600000.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Sean Kelly Gallery

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