Los Angeles is currently enveloped in Mapplethorpe mania. Two companion exhibitions are on view at the Getty Center and at LACMA, and a new documentary titled “Look at the Pictures” just opened on HBO. Twenty seven years after his death, it seems it was time to rediscover the work of an ambitious and provocative photographer who started taking pictures by accident.
Not that his photos ever went away. While I was wandering around the Getty galleries (the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation has bequeathed the entire catalogue to the Getty Research Institute) I was struck by how familiar so many of the images are, how they have entered the American visual lexicon.
The best portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe you can hope to read is the memoir Patti Smith wrote of their shared beginnings, Just Kids, before either of them became famous, before the controversy generated by the most graphic and sexual of his images. How times have changed – skipping and hopping in the galleries, among photographs of flowers, portraits, nudes and sexual acts, were many children and their unconcerned parents. Mercifully gone are the days of Senator Jesse Helms pointing at Mapplethorpe’s work and screaming “Just look at the pictures!” in outrage (although the steps recently taken by Mississippi and North Carolina in legally discriminating against the LGBT community are a sign there is still some way to go).
What transpires the most from the collection the curators chose to put on the museum walls, is the passion and dedication and search for perfection in the human body that consumed Mapplethorpe throughout his career. More than the portraits and the still lives, the nudes are what I found most affecting.
Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.” Patti Smith
“I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied.”
I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.” Patti Smith
“I’m not after beauty, I’m after perfection, and they’re not always the same.”
All images copyright of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation