Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most influential and controversial photographers of the 20th century, made his name in New York. Now, with a surprising joint acquisition by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his life’s work is heading to Los Angeles.
The two museums have together acquired some 2,000 of Mapplethorpe’s most famous photographs. Included is the estate’s last remaining “XYZ Portfolio,” a set of images featuring his highly sculptural flowers and his powerfully sculpted male nudes.
Also, as part of the deal announced Monday, the Getty Research Institute becomes home to the Mapplethorpe archive: a cache including 200 unique artworks, 120,000 negatives, 3,500 Polaroids used as studies for photographs, and reams of personal and professional correspondence.
Of particular note is his correspondence with rocker Patti Smith, who recently won a National Book Award for “Just Kids,” her memoir about her youthful romance with both New York City and Mapplethorpe, and coverage of the 1990 Cincinnati “obscenity” trial, a flashpoint in the so-called culture wars of that period.
“It’s an incredible, generous, meaningful gift, especially for L.A., considering he wasn’t a West Coast photographer,” said James Crump, who made a documentary about Mapplethorpe and his mentor/lover Sam Wagstaff and is now chief curator at Cincinnati Art Museum. “It’s one of the largest single artist gifts I’m aware of in the last decade.”
“It’s a coup for both LACMA and the Getty,” he adds.
David Bomford, acting president of the Getty Museum, said the acquisition is important both because of Mapplethorpe’s significance and “because it represents an unprecedented collaboration” between the museums. “Here are two great institutions getting together and acquiring this extremely important archive and body of art,” Bomford said.
All of the material, appraised at more than $30 million, comes from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York, which was formed shortly before the artist’s death from AIDS complications at age 42 in 1989. The bulk of it has been donated, with some funding provided by the J. Paul Getty Foundation and the foundation of David Geffen, who was brought into the mix by LACMA trustee Carole Bayer Sager. The material should reach L.A. this summer, with the first exhibitions taking place at both museums “within three years,” according to LACMA photography head Britt Salvesen.
“The potential to collaborate with not only the Getty but also with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation as we realize new projects is exciting,” Salvesen said, noting that the gifts build on LACMA’s strengths as an encyclopedic museum and the Getty’s holdings of historic photography.
Michael Stout, president of the Mapplethorpe Foundation, predicted that the scope and depth of the material will surprise even devout fans of the artist. “Many of the works going to Getty and LACMA are things we almost secretly reserved for this day,” he said. “The gift includes the last examples of many silver gelatin prints and early works like collages that we were really reluctant to sell. Our goal was for the museums to have everything they wanted to tell the full story of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and creative life.”
He said his board decided nearly a decade ago to try to find a permanent home for the archive, “and started looking at the obvious New York institutions” as well as a few outliers. They were looking, specifically, for institutions with major photography holdings matched by the archival resources needed to preserve negatives.
Stout said they had almost decided on a museum about three years ago when he happened to be in L.A. and met with LACMA Director Michael Govan. The two knew each other from Govan’s days at the Guggenheim, which was then the leading museum repository of Mapplethorpe’s work. “Michael said: ‘Why not us?’” remembered Stout.
Stout said he responded, “Because you’re not really an archive, with the huge refrigerator” needed for the preservation. When Govan suggested a partnership between LACMA and the Getty, Stout said he could see the appeal: two museum collections as well as the Getty Research Institute, which is known for its vast archival holdings and resources.
“L.A. itself was part of the attraction,” Stout said. “The city is emerging as a center of art, photography and culture generally, with great symphonies and interesting architecture. It’s a place where people want to be.”
There was one other factor the Mapplethorpe Foundation considered: The Getty already houses the archive of Wagstaff, who sold a large part of his collection to the museum in 1984, and that of Harry Lunn, the CIA agent turned art dealer who helped boost the status of photography — and its prices — by publishing artists such as Mapplethorpe.
According to Getty Research Institute photography curator Frances Terpak, scholars will likely be drawn to the Mapplethorpe archive for its early examples of assemblages and photographs by the artist. Born in 1946, Mapplethorpe started out as an artist in New York in the 1960s by making drawings and sculptures, using Polaroid cameras to document them. “When he was an art student at Pratt, he never took a photography course,” says Terpak. “He backed into photography.” It was not until 1975 that he started using a Hasselblad camera, a gift from Wagstaff.
Of even broader interest, perhaps, is the print and video documentation in the archive of the 1990 Cincinnati trial and the related culture wars. A set of homoerotic and sadomasochistic images in Mapplethorpe’s posthumous retrospective attracted charges of obscenity, prompting the Corcoran Gallery of Art to drop the show and a sheriff of Hamilton County, Ohio, to press charges after the show opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Jurors ultimately acquitted the museum and its director, Dennis Barrie — finding that the photographs were not obscene.
Reached Monday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that he doesn’t envision a local replay of the national debate from 20 years ago about whether Mapplethorpe’s most extreme work is acceptable for public-museum consumption. “No question, Mapplethorpe is controversial,” Yaroslavsky said. “He pushed boundaries then that would even be considered boundary-pushing today. But I think our society has matured a lot since then.”
Crump called Mapplethorpe’s sex photographs “his most unique contribution to the history of photography,” both because they were “a lightning rod for dissent and debate” and because they led to a reconsideration of “what’s appropriate subject matter in contemporary art and what is appropriate for the camera.”
Photographer James Welling, who is chair of UCLA’s photography department, called Mapplethorpe “one of the most important artists post-1970, if not the most important photographer,” bridging the gap between traditional photographs and the “staged photography of the art world, like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.”
Welling also had a word of advice for the Getty and LACMA upon receiving the gift. “I think it’s great for L.A. — it’s fantastic, but I want to see the photographs up on display, not sitting in an archive,” he said. “I wish that both those institutions had a bigger permanent display of photographs.”
Times staff writers Deborah Vankin and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.