LACMA’s plan to open a show featuring Robert Mapplethorpe’s gay sadomasochistic photographs two weeks before Election Day proves we’ve come a long way--maybe
When the ill-fated Robert Mapplethorpe survey called “The Perfect Moment” opened at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center in April 1990, some not unexpected and not very art-friendly visitors arrived. It was the vice squad. As Cynthia Carr, then on assignment for the Village Voice, recounts in her recent David Wojnarowicz biography, police began “pushing away the art-goers and knocking down velvet ropes as if chasing some deadly criminal.” After videotaping the evidence—-Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, a 1978 series that includes pictures of gay sadomasochistic scenarios—-police charged the museum and its director, Dennis Barrie, with pandering obscenity. At the resulting trial, a series of curators testified about the painstaking genesis of the photographs and the show, convincing the jurors, as one put it to me at the time, “that art doesn’t have to be pretty.” As art, however, it was not legally obscene. So they voted to acquit.
Still, it seemed, a chilling effect was in the air. For the next two decades, except for the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s re-creation of “The Perfect Moment” in conjunction with Showtime’s movie about the case, Mapplethorpe’s graphic images were rarely shown in U.S. art institutions, even as they packed museum galleries in Europe, Asia, and beyond.
Some American museum leaders undoubtedly thought the work was too hot to handle. But the artist’s low profile in his native country was also the result of a longtime strategy by his own foundation, which, in the wake of the obscenity trial, nixed several U.S. museums’ proposals for Mapplethorpe shows out of concern they would be sensationalized. “It was too overwhelming,” says Mapplethorpe Foundation president Michael Ward Stout. “People were losing track of the fact he was a serious artist.”
Now, two decades after it was denounced by Jesse Helms in Congress and almost sent Dennis Barrie to jail, the X Portfolio is finally coming out. Beginning October 21, in a space beyond immediate sightlines where labels note the content may not be appropriate for everyone, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present each work in Mapplethorpe’s controversial series, including a picture of a finger inserted into a penis, and several scenes of objects being inserted into an anus. Two companion series will also be on view: The Y Portfolio (1978), featuring flower still lifes, and the Z Portfolio (1981), portraits of nude black males. Two days later, not far way, the Getty Museum will open its own tribute to the artist, a one-gallery show called “In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe.” The museums are staging the exhibitions as a not-so-sneak peek at their spectacular joint acquisition, announced last year, of a trove of art and archives from the Mapplethorpe Foundation, including 2,000 photographs, 120,000 negatives, voluminous documentation of the obscenity trial, and much more. (The collections, which have since been appraised at $38 million, were mostly a gift from the Mapplethorpe foundation, with a little help from the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust.)
With its fat international resume, powerhouse institutional backing, and gay-friendly venue, the X Portfolio returns to public attention in a considerably different climate. Today’s audience, accustomed to contemporary museum fare like Paul McCarthy, not to mention cable and the Internet, won’t find Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic images particularly shocking, predicts LACMA director Michael Govan. “The context has changed,” he says. “People understand that while there’s quite provocative content, the focus on the human body and the human form is quite classical.” Several exhibitions in recent years have played up this connection, re-positioning the artist as a modern-day heir of the Renaissance and Baroque.
This new context provides a chance to move beyond a formal approach and look at many more sides of Mapplethorpe, says LACMA’s chief photography curator, Britt Salvesen. “There’s a lot to return to and think about and also reinterpret,” she says. She might post quotations from the obscenity proceedings inside the galleries or perhaps as outdoor projections; in a sense these too will show how times have changed. “Esthetically, no one feels the need to defend it as art,” Salvesen comments. “We have to move beyond that, if we’re put in the position of sort of defending the work.”
Now that no one’s expecting a bust, it’s clear that the show, staged in the midst of election season, will create a certain amount of buzz. But what kind? For it is also clear that Mapplethorpe’s work has not disappeared from the crosshairs of the right. Just two years ago, his photograph Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, a 1979 portrait of two men clad in S&M gear, was targeted in an article published by a conservative website denouncing “Hide/Seek,” the National Portrait Gallery’s show about gay and lesbian identity in modern art. This was the same article that brought Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly to the attention of Republican Congressmen—and then to Smithsonian chief G. Wayne Clough, who removed it in the belief he could avert a debate over arts funding. The episode (which the Mapplethorpe Foundation, a sponsor of the show, protested), evoked the Corcoran’s cancellation of “The Perfect Moment back” in 1989 for the same ostensible reason. Like Mitt Romney’s recent pledge to kill the National Endowment for the Arts, the ants-in-the-crucifix controversy suggested that maybe circumstances haven’t changed so much after all.
Whatever the reaction from the right, says “Hide/Seek” co-curator Jonathan Katz, LACMA’s exhibition does reflect how institutional attitudes toward gay identity in modern art have come a long way—maybe. “It’s a funny transitional moment,” he comments. When sexuality is central to artist’s work, he observes, museums and the public have become more inclined to address it. But if it’s not—he cites Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Demuth, Agnes Martin, and Louise Nevelson as examples–their gay or lesbian identities still tend to remain out of bounds. (He is currently working on an exhibition proposal about Nevelson’s “performative persona” in relation to her closeted lesbianism.) In contrast, Mapplethorpe used series like the X and Z Portfolios to “frame our prejudices and clichés, and to present them back to us.” In that respect, any repercussions reflect the artist’s own intentions.
“Of course the brouhaha that his work raised was not unanticipated by Mapplethorpe,” Katz adds. “It was in some sense his raison d’être.”