Many years have passed since Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs (New York 1946, Boston 1989) caused scandal in the art circuits to circumspect American Puritanism, with his themes of “queer” or homosexual eroticism. That conservatism had to evolve a significant amount before society was prepared to accept fully and recognize the talent of the enfant terrible behind the lens.
Finally, a highly respected institution like Los Angeles County Museum Art (LACMA) — in collaboration with The J. Paul Getty Museum—have been responsible for organizing and presenting The Perfect Medium, the long-awaited retrospective this genius of photography deserved.
The exhibition explores the artist`s motivations through the human figure, sexuality, and the sensual edges of the natural environment. Sketches, collages, sculptures, Polaroids, still lifes, portraits, essays on the human body, and a whole sequence obtained through experimentation with color and the juxtaposition of planes offer visitors insight into to the aesthetic and emotional universe of a talented man that—30 years after his death—continues to attract followers and inspire disciples.
His aura of enfant terrible has been relegated to the past, giving way to a new respect and admiration for a personal style that even in its most uncomfortable areas, reveals an unmatched sensitivity in capturing a body or an object with a simple click of a camera.
His place in the contemporary art scene becomes significant not only for the introduction of new techniques and formats but the exquisite mastery of color, textures, depths, and light— besides the conceptual reframing of the image`s discourse.
In The Perfect Medium, the viewers can see the resources and materials with which the artist worked, enriched by the experimental and spontaneous aspects that were part of his practice to achieve truly flawless images. The exhibition also illustrates the relationship between the photographer and his models and details the contrasting genres that Mapplethorpe used, nudes, portraits, still lifes— to raise the photographic document to the level of aesthetic expression.
The exhibition is a simultaneously coordinated project between LACMA and Getty— both in the city of Los Angeles— that displays the curatorial processing of assets acquired by both institutions through a joint venture in 2011.
On this occasion, the art collections of the two museums were enriched by approximately 3,000 copies, 200 objects, 160 Polaroids and 120,000 negatives of Mapplethorpe`s works, with the financial support of the music impresario David Geffen, co-founder of the film production company Dreamworks and one of the most prominent collectors in the United States.
The bulk of the legacy acquired was provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which the artist created a year before his untimely death from AIDS to protect his work and promote fundraising to finance medical research for HIV.
Today, the works of the controversial photographer reach premium prices that contradict the intransigence of censors and ultraconservative minds while critics and theoreticians systematized the knowledge of an oeuvre that includes portraits of celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones and Patti Smith; works that show images of lilies and orchids captured with exquisite lyricism, or reveals the beauty of the human nakedness even in its less-accepted positions.
That is precisely the focus of The Perfect Medium: it illustrates the multiple angles that coexisted in the masterful art of Mapplethorpe—the ones full of light, and also the darkest ones.
The exhibition will be available to the public until July 31, 2016. ■