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Review: LACMA’s ‘XYZ’ on Robert Mapplethorpe: Gay artist vs. straight tradition

A 1980 self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe.
(Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Whatever happened to straight photography? The short answer is: X, Y and Z.

That was the name given by Robert Mapplethorpe to 39 black-and-white pictures gathered in three portfolios of photographs he shot with a Hasselblad 500 camera and published between 1978 and ’81. (The co-publisher was Harry H. Lunn Jr., who had been a CIA agent before opening an art gallery in Washington, D.C.) The X, Y, Z Portfolios, rarely shown in their entirety, are on view through March 24 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Together with the J. Paul Getty Museum, LACMA is organizing a full Mapplethorpe retrospective for 2016. The Getty currently has a thumbnail overview — 24 images — of the artist’s career, drawn from the two museums’ joint-acquisition last year of his entire photographic output. But LACMA’s “XYZ” show offers an excellent opportunity to experience a pivotal transformation in art.

For most of the 20th century, straight photography was the genre of camera work chosen by photographers with sincere aspirations to making art. Sadakichi Hartmann, the German Japanese writer who was photography’s first great independent critic, threw down the gauntlet in 1904.

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Writing in an early issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly magazine Camera Work, a polemical journal dedicated to “the furtherance of modern photography,” he urged his readers to stop trying to make camera pictures that mimic paintings.

Hartmann’s “A Plea for Straight Photography” put photographers on critical trial — and found them guilty — for drawing on negatives in the darkroom to fabricate backgrounds for their pictures, etching them to create soft shadows in prints, daubing highlights to produce pictorial harmonies, painting in half-tones with a brush and more. Studio tricks hid the mechanical foundation of camera work.

Manipulated photographs, Hartmann lamented, held camera images in subjugation to “the prevailing clamor for high art.” Instead, he implored photographers to “work straight.”

And work straight they did. Slowly but surely, out went slick darkroom procedures. In came sharp focus, composing in the camera’s viewfinder, documentary veracity and claims for objectivity. The unmanipulated photographic print came to dominate Modernist aesthetics into the 1970s.

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Indeed, it’s the technique Mapplethorpe learned in 1975 when he picked up a professional-grade Hasselblad. He was 29. Like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Minor White and countless others before him, he adhered to Hartmann’s straight photography tenets.

But there was a difference. Unlike his predecessors, Mapplethorpe invested little faith in the idea of photographic purity. Instead, he was an apostate. In the wake of gay liberation, Mapplethorpe made straight photographs that were anything but straight — pun intended.

The X Portfolio centers on men engaged in gay sex, including hard-core sadomasochism. The subject wasn’t entirely new. In Greek vase decorations, Indian miniatures and pagan temple sculptures, candid and highly refined sex pictures, heterosexual and homosexual, have been around since before Alexander the Great and the Mahabharata.

Photography’s conventional dialogue with painting and sculpture, which so upset Hartmann, is also held close. Many Mapplethorpe compositions loosely relate to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, William Blake, Chaim Soutine and others.

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Take one that is especially hard to look at. Blood-splattered testicles bound and stretched in a vice — a gruesome image of masculinity in extreme distress — are photographed close-up, filling the frame. The result evokes Rembrandt’s iconic 1657 painting “Carcass of Beef,” a flayed slab of raw meat unceremoniously strung up on a butcher’s rack.

The echo doesn’t stop there. In the 1920s, Soutine turned the Dutch Master’s painted metaphor of brute sacrifice, filled with crucifixion overtones, into nearly abstract canvases. Mapplethorpe’s photograph pulls it back to documentary truth, printed in an unsentimental range of lush tones on the gray-scale.

Tough, even gruesome photographs like this one are disconcertingly juxtaposed with the Y Portfolio’s lovely images of cut flowers. Straight photographs by Cunningham, Weston and others mused on nature’s impermanence in quintessential floral masterpieces. Mapplethorpe’s fragile tulips, carnations and spider mums, sometimes tracked by menacing shadows, are italicized by the flowers’ imminent demise.

The original term for a still life was nature morte — nature dead — complete with connotations of life’s vanity. I’m unaware of any Mapplethorpe photographs of pansies, but the social implication of his barbed juxtaposition of fragile flowers and painful gay sex is hard to miss.

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Meanwhile the elegant, African American male nudes in the Z Portfolio took one more step. They are flat-out classical — with a variation.

Black skin slyly contradicts the pristine white marble typified in sculpture from the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome and neoclassical Europe and the Americas. The Z Portfolio’s nudes, some carefully posed atop pedestals, exude the aristocratic refinement of coveted Baroque bronzes, the pared-down Modern simplicity of Brancusi sculptures and the highly aestheticized “otherness” of a white artist depicting a black subject.

The XYZ Portfolio shows how Mapplethorpe used his camera to engage in an extended conversation on art and life in the last quarter of the 20th century. LACMA curator Britt Salvesen installed the prints, each measuring roughly 7.5-by-7.5 inches, in a staggered stack of three horizontal rows — almost like lines of text. She also displays all three portfolio cases, together with their original printed commentaries by literary translator Paul Schmidt; musician and poet Patti Smith (the artist’s lover); and gay novelist and essayist Edmund White.

Seeing them in this manner, which the artist is said to have intended, is very different from seeing any one portfolio or single photograph in isolation. Your eye scans from elegant nude to dark erotic encounter to fragile bunch of flowers, coaxing out Mapplethorpe’s poetic meditation on art, mortality and the complexity of social intercourse.

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The interplay of beauty, desire, suffering and death is fundamental to the canon of Western art, whether a public Last Judgment fresco on a Renaissance wall or an extravagant ode to Christian martyrdom in a private devotional altarpiece. Its grim yet poignant conflict between the sacred and the profane ripples up from Mapplethorpe’s own youthful background in the Roman Catholic Church.

And what a difference 34 years makes. The X Portfolio was first shown in L.A. in August 1978, not long after it was made. The New York-based photographer had only recently begun to exhibit his work internationally, and the show ran without incident at the old Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art on South Robertson Boulevard. Countless artists have been born and grown to maturity since that show, and for them the X Portfolio is as much an artifact of art history as straight photography was to Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe mixed the nitric acid of homoeroticism, femininity and black otherness with the glycerol of establishment straight photography. The charged result was the nitroglycerin of straight photography lavishly picturing things that dominant straight society oppressed. The art-bomb burned with a long fuse, smoldering throughout the Age of Reagan.

Then in 1989-90 it exploded. Cultural conservatives, emboldened by the decade’s sharp rightward turn in national politics, saw an opportunity to make inroads on territory occupied for a quarter-century by cultural progressives. Mapplethorpe had just died, but his traveling museum exhibition, “The Perfect Moment,” became the volatile target.

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North Carolina segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms and Bible-thumper Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Assn., a Mississipi hate-group now monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, occupied the ramparts. Neoconservative art critic Hilton Kramer took to the establishment pages of the New York Times, penning a ludicrous screed advocating for homosexual culture to stay closeted.

Their attacks, much to the rapt amusement of the American public, diverted attention from the sleazy concurrent spectacle of televangelist brawls between Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell and the PTL Club’s Jim Bakker, as well as the weepy downfall of Jimmy Swaggart. The controversial arrival of Mapplethorpe’s dirty pictures into art museums’ hallowed halls gave elite cover to common grifters being hauled off in handcuffs amid tawdry tabloid sex scandals.

The fact that X-rated pictures from the X Portfolio could not be reproduced in the media only fanned the flames of fervid imagination. But there would be no turning back. Awareness of social diversity had gathered strength in response to the AIDS crisis, which touched countless Americans previously unaware of gay life.

As much as any artist working with a camera — and more than most — Mapplethorpe was instrumental in blowing up the ghetto walls that separated photography from art for more than 125 years. Today, when photographs of all kinds are ubiquitous in galleries and museums, it can be difficult to recall that they once lived in a parallel art-universe. Photography’s status as art was questioned, not assumed — not unlike homosexuals’ humanity.

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What has obscured Mapplethorpe’s achievement in this wholesale transformation is “the scandal” — the manufactured outrage over his notorious X Portfolio. That’s changing now. At LACMA and the Getty, yesterday’s headline news is today’s consequential art history.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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