Without classic 1960s Pop art, especially Andy Warhol’s, there would be no Robert Mapplethorpe photographs as we know them from the 1970s and 1980s.
That’s the big takeaway from a visit to “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” a newly opened, impressive two-museum exhibition.
You won’t see much in the way of comic strips, commercial advertising or movie-star pictures at either the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the J. Paul Getty Museum, the pair of institutions whose curators, Britt Salvesen and Paul Martineau, organized the collaboration. LACMA and the Getty acquired a huge trove of Mapplethorpe’s photographs plus the artist’s vast archive of supporting material in 2011.
Warhol had chosen existing commercial photographs to represent established clichés about Modern painting. Campbell’s became the popular “soup” of gloppy paint in Abstract Expressionist canvases. An ad for a medical truss described the artistic “rupture” performed by the avant-garde. Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy played the role of “the tragic and the timeless” that ostensibly motivated serious art, while colorful flowers dotting a grassy field showed what a real Color Field painting could look like.
What Mapplethorpe took from Pop art was its cheeky conceptual approach to making pictures. If Warhol’s factory-studio made painting into a mass product of industry, Mapplethorpe would make the camera — the image machine of the Industrial Age — into an ambitious equivalent of a sculptor’s chisel and a painter’s brush.
His figure studies mimic statuary, often ancient Greek or Roman and sometimes Neo-Classical, like the art of the 18th and 19th centuries that looked back at antiquity. Pictures of a muscular man posed within the circle of a giant tube fuse Lewis Hine’s 1920 “Power House Mechanic,” the famous photograph of a wrench-wielding worker in a massive industrial setting, with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” an idealized male form by a homosexual genius inscribed within the perfection of a circle and a square.
Mapplethorpe’s flowers — never shown thriving in soil but always cut and composed — are forever at peak bloom, their imminent demise a cautionary picture of inevitable mortality, like a 17th century Dutch still life.
LACMA is focused on Mapplethorpe’s earliest endeavors, including student work and juvenilia. One result is a lot of mediocre art.
Still, it’s fascinating to examine in order to trace the strands that would come together to form the tapestry of his mature output. Working in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s sexual revolution, he embraced his homosexuality. Self-acceptance may even have contributed to the artist’s decision to move away from his youthful interest in painting, sculpture and graphic design and toward photography.
After all, camera work had always held second-class status in art’s established hierarchy. It was not unlike Mapplethorpe’s own social standing as a gay man. A photograph really was his perfect medium.
Street photography and its subject matter of life caught unmediated and unawares was then the dominant genre. It found trenchant form in “The Gay Essay,” the ambitious 1969 project by Anthony Friedkin to document the LGBT communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. And its grand history dated to the 1850s, while the up-to-the-minute street work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander was widely celebrated.
Mapplethorpe promptly rejected it. Instead, he chose to work where painters and sculptors traditionally worked — in the studio, not the street.
Mapplethorpe zigged where accepted photography zagged. Portraiture, figure studies and still lifes are his nearly exclusive subjects.
LACMA presents 182 works, mostly photographs but also assemblage sculptures, drawings, collages and other objects. There are portraits of Mapplethorpe by other artists, including Lynn Davis and Francesco Scavullo, as well as ephemera — posters, catalogs, gay magazines, etc.
A sizable number of the photographs in both halves of the show were posthumously printed from negatives held in the archive (Mapplethorpe died at 42 in 1989). That’s less than ideal, although not a deal-breaker since the artist never printed his work himself. He left the task to master printers; artist Tom Baril did the honors for 15 years.
More problematic is a wince-inducing LACMA wall-text. It asserts that Mapplethorpe was an advocate for leading “an openly gay lifestyle.”
Yet there is no such thing. The “gay lifestyle” is a political fiction, invented by opponents of gay civil rights. I daresay Mapplethorpe didn’t encourage that. An accurate wall text would say he advocated living an openly gay life.
The show’s first great photograph suggests as much. It’s a 1979 double portrait of Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, two men Mapplethorpe knew from Manhattan’s leather underground. Shackled and chained together in black biker regalia as master and slave, they occupy a sleek domestic living room instead of a bleak dungeon.
It’s a very funny picture, brilliantly staged.
Mapplethorpe’s photograph is “American Gothic” reconceived for a new age of multicultural urbanity. Grant Wood’s prune-faced Iowa farmers get recast with a disturbing Diane Arbus edge, all within a surrounding glow of Warholian camp.
At the Getty, photography as an insistent Art-with-a-capital-A moves front and center. The 113 photographs open with a formal emphasis on the artist’s “Studio Practice,” as distinct from street photography. A room full of portraits and figure studies of Samuel Wagstaff, Philip Prioleau and Milton Moore even put you in mind of Picasso.
The pictures’ style is obviously different — elegant, austere, always statuesque. But the erotic attachment to and inspiration from a succession of the artist’s lovers is the same.
Among nine images of Lisa Lyon, the acclaimed female bodybuilder, one shows her in a lustrous satin gown as a glamour girl from Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s photographed in the romantic manner of George Hurrell, like a brunet Jean Harlow. When finally you notice the armpit hair in her unshaved underarms, the gauzy past collapses under the acutely observed power of a more liberated present.
A double portrait of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman in layered profiles riffs on the exquisite, black-and-white tonal range that platinum print photography can produce. These unisex heads are intensely sculptural — black skin as densely radiant as bronze, white skin glistening like marble.
A 1980 self-portrait is carefully stylized to evoke a 1950s bad boy, signified by an elaborately exaggerated ducktail haircut and black leather jacket. The artist transforms himself into Elvis performing Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” It’s a virtual fusion of Warhol’s famous photo-silkscreen paintings of those two celebrity icons — albeit without a drop of paint or stitch of canvas.
Warhol’s inventive photo-silkscreen technique allowed an ordinary photograph to masquerade as a painting. Mapplethorpe dropped any painterly pretense.
In 1987, the year Warhol suddenly died, Mapplethorpe photographed a dollar bill in tight close-up, filling the frame and illuminated by a bright light set up behind the currency. Backlighting allowed both sides of the bill to show at once, superimposing them as if in a double exposure.
The word “ONE” is stamped in capital letters across the bewigged head of George Washington. Is this a nod to ONE Magazine, in 1953 the first widely distributed U.S. publication for homosexuals?
Maybe. Whatever the case, I can’t look at the dollar bill photograph without seeing a candid Pop homage to Warhol. And rightly so: He’s the father of Mapplethorpe country.