From Truman Capote to Laurie Anderson: Mapplethorpe’s Portraits at the San Jose Museum of Art
Twenty-two years after the controversial show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art closed-or actually never opened, Mapplethorpe’s work is celebrated world-wide without a blink of hesitation. The controversy is just a blip in the cultural memory of the late 1980s – early 1990s culture wars that created famous verbal spars between artists like Karen Finley and political leaders like Senator Jessie Helms. The obscenity wars shaped a generation and our memory of American life in the last part of the 20th century.
The traveling show, Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits, originating from the Palm Springs Art Museum is currently on exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art. The collection of over 100 portraits reads like a little black book of who’s who in the New York hip art world of the 1970s and1980s. What made Mapplethorpe so infamous is “barely” present. The collection consists of early unpolished portraits and later refined portraits of celebrities, artists and several unknown models. Only a few images have a flavor of the underground BDSM world Mapplethorpe explored in his most controversial work. There are no nude/body studies of the black male figure. Shocking only in the expanse of who he photographed, Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits steer clear of phallic flowers and enormous extremities.
After his death, Mapplethorpe became a poster boy for queer politics and identity politics of the 1990s. His overt approach to sexuality tapped into a homo-erotic representation of gay life in NYC. His self-portraits are powerful testaments to sensuality and an identity in flux. In two portraits Mapplethorpe poses with a rockabilly hairdo flip, leather motorcycle jacket and cigarette dangling from pouty lips. His masculinity exudes in his portrayal of a leather boy looking for a pick-up in the local Eagle aka gay leather bar. In a more serious self-portrait – obviously shot/created later in his life during his physical decline as a result of contracting AIDS – Mapplethorpe looks like a king of a secret society, holding court, firmly gripping the staff of life and death (represented with a skull), understanding his own mortality. Dressed in a black turtle-neck sweater, he stares at the camera – staring at himself, as if to say silently and unapologetically who he was, is, and will be. Mapplethorpe lives on through his art, describing and pinpointing a specific time in American history, culture and location.
Sequenced last, though not chronological, Mapplethorpe poses in drag- not to disguise his maleness or even to suggest that he could pass as female, but to declare his identity, his queerness, his desire to love men, and be loved by men, performing his femaleness.
Mapplethorpe’s portraits show us not so much about the individuals but about their relationships with Mapplethorpe. Susan Sarandon posed and had her children pose for Mapplethorpe. Richard Gere, a sex symbol, willingly posed bare-chested, objectified by Mapplethorpe and the public. Kathy Acker, a renegade, feminist poet covers her face in an act of defiance and perhaps challenging Mapplethorpe’s desire to reveal her true self to the public. There are celebrities who posed multiple times for Mapplethorpe. There are celebrities and artists who probably posed for Mapplethorpe simply because that’s what you did, if you were somebody in NYC in 1982. Take, for example, the portrait of Andy Warhol. It is void of any closeness or intimacy. There is a disdain for each other, artist to artist, subject to author.
In a city obsessed with parties, what’s hot and new, and itself, Mapplethorpe captures the narcissistic nature of the art world and all its groupies. His images are stunning and memorable as is his legacy and symbolic place in queer history and contemporary photography.
Sheila A. Malone, MFA
independent artist, educator and curator
January 29 through June 5, 2011
San Jose Museum of Art
110 South Market Street
San Jose, CA 95113