Since the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation donated the archives of the American artist (who died of AIDS in 1989) to two institutions, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), in 2011, a major event has been in the air. It has now become reality with no less than two exhibitions, both of which opened last March in the respective museums: a retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s career and an exhibition devoted to the artist’s personal archive.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs, the catalog accompanying the Getty Museum retrospective, with introductory texts by the curators Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen, is yet another invitation to discover or rediscover the controversial photographer’s most famous images: those depicting his obsessions with sexuality, his provocations, his pornographic vision, his famous friends, or his sexual partners, whether friends or lovers, his classicism, and his sense of aesthetics developed in particular in portraiture. We find here the most famous works associated with his name, burning as well as tender images, which haven’t lost any of their appeal.
In addition to a wealth of writing on the artist’s work, his methods, his influences, and his place in the history of art, the general public will be pleased to discover a selection of more or less unexpected photographs. To name only a few, there are images of objects or landscapes, such as flowers (Tulips, NYC 1977 or Carnation, NYC 1978, among others), the American Flag (1977), the seaside (Waves, 1980), a giant rock jutting out from the ocean (Mountain, 1983), money (Dollar Bill, 1987), or the image of a warship (Coral Sea, 1983) which stands out as unusual in terms of style and subject for Mapplethorpe. Here and there, scattered throughout the book, these uncustomary images surprise us with their formalism and their conformity to a reality that the photographer was often committed to staging and aestheticizing. In a strange way, these images tend to comfort us through the calm they emanate, like a quiet breath of air in the sea of artfulness which tends to overwhelm the heart and the mind in Mapplethorpe’s work.
As an epilog, the catalog features a series of longer essays by specialists in photography, including Richard Meyer who explores Mapplethorpe’s pornographic imagination; Philip Gefter who delves into the artist’s homosexual sensibilities and his relationship with the collector Sam Wagstaff; Carol Squiers who writes about the central place of the portrait and the self-portrait in Mapplethorpe’s work; and Ryan Linkof who explores the influence of fashion and fetishism on the photographer’s work. These essays constitute one of the chief attractions of this book. They offer us insights into the political panic Mapplethorpe provoked in the 1980s; anecdotes about life at the Chelsea Hotel; Mapplethorpe’s first encounter with male pornography at Times Square, NYC, when he was a teenager. Beyond its retrospective character and the compilation of images, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs is a must-have book thanks to its special features, the abundance of details it offers, and the invaluable critical analyses it contains.
Robert Mapplethorpe, The Photographs
By Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen
With essays by Philip Gefter, Jonathan D. Katz, Ryan Linkof, Richard Meyer, Carol Squiers
J. Paul Getty Museum
340 pages, 9.5 x 12 inches
241 color illustrations
ISBN 978-1-60606-469-6, Hardcover
US $59.95 T [UK £40.00]
Robert Mapplethorpe, The Perfect Medium
• From March 15th to July 31st, 2016
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1687
• From March 20th to July 31st, 2016
The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art (Lacma)
5905 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036