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Robert Mapplethorpe's extraordinary vision



Reviewed August 6, 1989.

Washington Project for the Arts,

Washington, DC.

On exhibit through October 4 at

The Institute of Contemporary Art.


THE WASHINGTON PROJECT for the Arts resides in an unassuming little brownstone near 7th and D Street NW in Washington, DC. Inside, it's neat and prim, with pristine whitewashed walls and twisting spiral staircases. Not at all the sort of place in which one would expect to find an exhibit of "obscene" art.

Ironically, the WPA is only a short walk from the Capitol, where Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina spearheads the movement to gut the organization that funded the most profitable exhibition in the gallery's history, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.

Controversy over publicly funded art will neither begin nor end with Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs. In mid-1989, there was an uproar over the work of another photographer, Andres Serrano, whose "Piss Christ" -- a murky, moody photograph of the crucified Christ submerged in the artist's urine -- had been partially funded by a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Suddenly the search for other publicly funded, "inappropriate" art was on, and Robert Mapplethorpe's work became the next target.

Mapplethorpe's earliest efforts were his most controversial. He first achieved notoriety for his work celebrating and documenting New York's gay community in the late 1970s. Often the photographs explicitly depicted sexual organs and bondage equipment. Yet Mapplethorpe's art always revealed the humanity and emotions of his subjects behind their leather, spikes, and chains. These graphic depictions of a subsection of the homosexual community later aroused the ire of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's conservative American Family Association, and subsequently that of Helms.

Helms has objected most forcefully to those photographs that he and others regard as pornographic. The senator has a standard packet of four Mapplethorpe photos he shows to reporters questioning him about his stance on "obscene" art. These include "Man in Polyester Suit," depicting the polyester-clad torso of a black man, his uncircumcised penis dangling from his fly, and "Rosie," a two- or three-year-old child caught, shocked, on film -- her crotch exposed. Helms claims the latter is a clear example of child pornography. Both photographs are part of The Perfect Moment collection.

In June 1989 the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington cancelled its scheduled exhibition of the Mapplethorpe works. The DC artists' community retaliated by giving a late-night slide show of the most explicit photos on the Corcoran's marble fa,cade. Because of the controversy, demand to see the exhibit exploded, The Washington Post reviewed the show from its catalog, and the Washington Project for the Arts, at great expense, picked up the exhibit.

The WPA does not have a large building. They were previously accustomed to greeting about 40 visitors each weekend. During the first weekend of the Mapplethorpe exhibit, 4000 people crammed into the gallery.

So the question remains: Is The Perfect Moment worth all the hype and controversy?

Absolutely. The exhibit is a retrospective of a brilliant photographer's work, ranging from his famous Lisa Lyons series and portraits of New York celebrities, to his starkly sexual flowers and images of the gay community. It's a fairly even sampling of his oeuvre -- although it does rely a little heavily on Mapplethorpe's favorite floral subject, the calla lily -- and is accompanied by a 55-minute videotape of a BBC interview with the photographer.

Mapplethorpe's style is derived primarily from that of Edward Weston; like Weston, Mapplethorpe produced hundreds of studies of the naked human form, examining its curves and crevices, often at such magnification or unusual angles that a close-up of a nipple looked more like a tiny mountain on an alien landscape or became so abstracted as to lose all of its impact as a sexual object. Mapplethorpe's creative use of light and shadow and his erotic photos of grapes and eggplant also recall Weston's Pepper No. 30.

But Mapplethorpe had a style all his own. Raised in a strict Catholic family, Mapplethorpe was influenced by the rigidity of his religion in his later work in every way. Often in the exhibit, one sees carefully geometric layouts, as in the two gigantic mirrors "Star" and "Black X." Both are sectioned as precisely as a Good Friday mass, the "X" most symbolically so with a tan cross reaching from apex to apex across the carbon-black mirror.

The cross imagery and its accompanying symmetry also appear dramatically in his 1987 construction "Andy Warhol," where a photograph of the enigmatic artist is framed inside a square-shaped cross. Warhol, his silver wig surrounded by a glowing halo, has a look on his face like a Christ stunned at the revelation of his own godhood. Religious sentiments figure strongly in "Tie Rack" as well, with stickpins piercing stigmata on a figure of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix suspended from floss wound around the pins.

Mapplethorpe was very conscious of these religious undertones and was quoted in one interview as saying: "I was a Catholic boy, I went to church every Sunday. A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child. It still shows in how I arrange things. It's always little altars."

This rigidity and symmetry carries over into his nudes as well. "Thomas" shows a muscular black man enclosed within a circular barrier, his arms stretched 180 degrees to push against his cage. "Derrick Cross" is a narrow image of a black man's arm stretched straight out. And in "Ken and Tyler," two headless figures, one black and one white, pose with their left legs poised like ballet dancers. The photograph is at once precise and erotic, a combination only Mapplethorpe or Weston would have been able to achieve.

Mapplethorpe's flowers are as carefully positioned as his human subjects. His still lifes are stark -- usually only one or two flowers, and often in shadow -- but they display a raw sexuality even more powerful than that of the nudes. His treatment of the male and female aspects of the calla lily is most striking, one photograph emphasizing the flower's phallic stamen, another emphasizing its feminine curves. At the size at which the flower photographs have been printed, their sensuality becomes overwhelming. The colors -- yellow-orange lilies against a royal purple background, green pipe-cleaner stems and red silk petals of a poppy and bud -- are so vibrant that they draw the viewer in, forcing him to acknowledge their primitive sexuality.

The aforementioned "Poppy" is so erotic that the Washington Project for the Arts displayed it alongside the graphic X, Y, and Z Portfolios. The stems of the poppies curl around each other, intertwined like lovers' legs, the phallic bud hovering over the opened flower with palpable malice.

At the WPA, the curator took care to isolate the X, Y, and Z Portfolios from the faint-hearted by placing them in a separate room. The Institute of Contemporary Art has copped out just a little: the portfolios are accessible to everyone, but exhibit tickets are on sale only to those 18 or older, and minors may only attend if accompanied by a parent. These restrictions, while they may seem slightly fascist, are there for good reason. The portfolios contain explicit depictions of sexual acts, and while some people will not consider them pornography, others will be deeply offended.

Not all the works in the portfolios are explicit; some are the sensual flowers, others are simply portraits. Nevertheless, they do contain Mapplethorpe's infamous self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus as well as many photographs of penises and men engaging in homosexual acts. Still, shocking the public in order to sensitize them to gay issues was one of Mapplethorpe's primary goals, and the photographs are worth seeing for their artistic merit alone.

The portfolios are displayed with a series of poems by poet and singer Patti Smith. The prose poems, which are structured as free associations on the letters X, Y, and Z, go straight to the heart of Mapplethorpe's work: "Y is the symbol of the covenant which exists between the artist and his creator/ Y is the consummation of this idea thru the projection of the perfect shot."Please use the poetry as sandwich quotes; I want them to be obvious. --debby

The most compelling photographs in the exhibit, however, are Mapplethorpe's astoundingly perceptive portraits of celebrities ranging from actor Richard Gere to Transparent Horizons sculptor Louise Nevelson. Mapplethorpe had a remarkable ability to reveal the inner spirit of his subjects: Performance artist Laurie Anderson smiles winsomely, her eyes betraying her mischieviousness; Louise Bourgeois grins wickedly, her giant bronze sculpture of a penis clutched underneath her arm. Minimalist composer Philip Glass perches nervously on a chair, his arms folded over his crossed legs, his face startled, unshaven.

Mapplethorpe's favorite human subjects, however, were himself and his close friend, poet and singer, Patti Smith. His portraits of Smith are amazing -- all at once, they capture her loneliness and her independence, her sensitivity and her wildness. They are feral and primitive. For "Patti Smith (Don't Touch Here)," Mapplethorpe flanks a Polaroid film cover with four Polaroids of the singer. The film cover, clearly marked "DON'T TOUCH HERE. Handle only by the edges" is juxtaposed with the images of Smith clutching at a white wall, alternately looking paranoid, fierce, resigned, and vulnerable. It's a simple construction and an even simpler concept. It's just that Mapplethorpe makes it work so well.

Oddly, the artist's numerous self-portraits are the only ones that fail to reveal a major personality trait. His self-portraits are largely an unsuccessful search for his own identity. In one portrait, he outfits himself with horns and a devilish smile; in another, he teases his hair, puts on rouge and lipstick, and stares open-mouthed at the camera in a kind of kinky parody of Marilyn Monroe. Others show him as James Dean, a Satan-worshipping terrorist, and a debonair gentleman. The portraits of his friends capture their perfect moments, but somehow -- perhaps he found self-portraits too intimate, too personal? -- Mapplethorpe is unable to do the same for himself.

The Perfect Moment is exactly that: a study of the point where sex merges with sensuality, eroticism merges with the edges of pornography, fear of the camera merges with revelation of the inner self. Simply put, it is an extraordinary collection of work by an extraordinary man.


For those who wish to learn more about Mapplethorpe and his work, the ICA is sponsoring a symposium on September 22 at the Hynes Convention Center. The symposium will be moderated by ICA Director David A. Ross, and participants will deliver papers discussing the social, cultural, and historical implications of Mapplethorpe's art.