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Thursday, September 08, 2005


Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition

Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints, Guggenheim Museum, New York, July 1–August 24, 2005

Robert Mapplethorpe has become a sainted figure in the American art world, especially in New York, where he practiced an avant-garde photography of, among other things, gay sexual practices. This work, not his best but of a nearly anthropological interest for gay and straight alike, is in my mind marred by what I would call an excessive calculation or coldness on the artist’s part—hence the convenient, if controversial, reading of his black nudes and detailed buddings of orchids as evidence of a neoclassicism bent on confronting the viewer. Seeing his work, the black nudes especially, one begins to wonder if Mapplethorpe elevated the body beyond the simple facts of its appearance to a place where its expression was sovereign, the zenith of an eroticism so intense as to be self-devouring. I acknowledge considerable unease when facing Mapplethorpe’s sexualized poses, no matter if they are supposed to celebrate human desire or the wonders of the natural world. In a show given the rather grand title of Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Condition by the Guggenheim Museum, Mapplethorpe’s effective yet brusque musings on sexuality were meant to hold viewers’ interest even as he called into question the visual sufficiency of such interest, in which the beautiful bodies of such models as Lisa Lyons and Derrick Cross seemed to suggest a beauty nearly pornographic in its open embrace of sex as an art form.

Mapplethorpe’s problem—and that of his audience—lies in representing erotic reverie as a valid, mainstream art form, a difficulty that is certainly evident in his documentation of some aspects of that gay life to which he was so committed. He captured a moment of extreme trust in the history of the gay community, which allowed him artistic entry, for example, into the practices of an often closed, sadomasochistic world. He was seen as a member of the community, and his reporting carried with it the confidence that the image of a man, say, in a zipped-up, leather mask carried not only the reverberations of cultural shock but also the truth of what we all—no matter what our preferences—seek in sexual activity: a self-defining pleasure that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the person with whom we are involved. Until Mapplethorpe opened it up to the mainstream, our perception of gay life was essentially distanced by lack of experience: we assumed that an alternative sexuality would not be able to sustain general interest, let alone “universalize” its passion, because the erotic practices to which we were being exposed were so much the property of a “minority.” Yet the “outing” of homosexuality would have its effect on sexuality in general: Mapplethorpe asks us to take as commonplace the erotics of a small group of practitioners whose relationship to pleasure is, if nothing else, much more controversial than might seem in the apparently guileless sexuality portrayed in his photography. Mapplethorpe fought—rightly, I believe—for the psychosexual rights of those engaging in sadomasochistic practices; however, the politics of his position did not inevitably make for good art.

The artist’s subject matter, then, became a matter of overt acceptance of what it was: an exploration of atypical sexual practice rather than a coy, superficial illustration of a gay lifestyle presented for our personal, and prurient, interest. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there is much to be gained from exposure to “unconventional” sex, if for no other reason than it makes us examine our own notions of sexuality. Yet, this artistic stance presupposes that the actual documentation of the sexual practice depicted will justify itself, since it is not, for the most part, part of our experience. And this is where Mapplethorpe can be criticized for failing to communicate completely; he takes sexual rarity and proceeds to examine it as if it were mainstream. When the artist himself says, as he does in the catalogue, “I’m just trying to sort of be on the edge,” the justification for his work moves away from the rather ingenuous assumption of mainstream consumption to assert itself as other—a shift in values that, unfortunately, ratifies a prurient curiosity in certain forms of gay sex. Mapplethorpe therefore challenges us to respond to his images as though we were active practitioners of a gay lifestyle, while the more extreme forms of his art—in particular, his presentation of bondage and leather practice—are placed before us as inherently natural expressions of sexuality.

Classicism as a normative esthetic gives Mapplethorpe and his admirers the chance to transform uncommon fantasies into a common artistic legacy that is not only accessible to everyone, but also humanizes the naked black men with whom the artist was obsessed and who he so often depicted as primary images within his pantheon of exoticized sexual heroes. The formal perfection of Mapplethorpe’s work cannot be denied, but there is a curious flatness, a lack of feeling, that undermines the general context of what he presents to us. This, it seems to me, is Mapplethorpe’s greatest failing: a coldness that makes even his natural studies of orchids appear essentially pornographic. Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her point of view: Mapplethorpe’s distance enables him to photograph people as if they were objects, in a way that emphasizes their essential otherness even as he claims a place for them in the mainstream. The inclusion of sex in the objectivities of classicism argues, in any case, for an interpretation of eros supported by public historical legacies, as opposed to the private realm, which is usually the lens through which we view sexual desire and activities. So the attempt to classicize Mapplethorpe is, at the very least, callow in its effort to contextualize as similar two very different kinds of art: Mapplethorpe’s and that of the mannerist period, which is supposedly distanced in the same way that Mapplethorpe’s art is. There is common ground between artists and epochs, but we would do well to explore whether a shared purpose or intention is part of what we experience here.

Certainly, there is a superficial similarity between Mapplethorpe’s 1976 photo of a scrunched-up, naked Patti Smith and the sixteenth-century sculpture of Barhelmy Prieur, entitled Young Woman Cutting Her Toenails (ca. 1565), just as there is between Thomas and Dovanna (1986)—in which a naked, black man embraces a slender white woman outfitted in a thin white dress—and the etching, A Roman Holding A Sabine Woman (sixteenth century), by Jan Harmensz. Muller, after waxworks by Adriaen de Vries. In both Mapplethorpe images, what stands out is the arbitrary self-awareness of the characters involved. Smith waifishly regards us sideways, coyly pointing out the nearly complete vulnerability of her nakedness, in a very bare room. The statue of the woman cutting her toenails reminds us sufficiently of the Mapplethorpe image, so that we nod our heads in recognition of their similarities, even though it lacks the sexual suggestiveness of the latter. Is a superficial likeness close enough to establish a standard of comparison between Mapplethorpe and the mannerism of which he appears to be so aware? This question is central to the show, whose method of comparing and contrasting examples of two different periods is central to the pleasure that the exhibition offers. My own response is a bit skeptical: I don’t see much more than a surface similarity, which, while striking, doesn’t carry beyond a shared exercise of formal language. Additionally, the catalogue essays do little to connect Mapplethorpe to the classical tradition.

While it must be granted that this shared vernacular makes for powerful points of contact, especially in light of the drama of Thomas and Dovanna and A Roman Abducting A Sabine Woman, I remain skeptical of the argument because the energy of Mapplethorpe’s photographs is not easily converted to similar baroque poses—at least in part because his work is expected to make a difference in the audience’s experience, which is jaded regarding the kinds of effects we find in Mapplethorpe’s imagery. Indeed, we are so overwhelmed by the current culture’s interest in pornography, in which everything points to lust, that we instantaneously accept Mapplethorpe’s sexually charged photos as indicative of a sexualized convention, something the artist himself seems to have intended. The play of interracial sex in Mapplethorpe’s work also takes an overtired trope and rather coldly uses it for artistic purposes, while the violence seems more real, more believable, in Muller’s etching. All of Mapplethorpe’s energy is summed up in the overall gestalt of the two actors, who play out a fantasy intensified by the artist’s calculating eye. Is calculation always a part of classical art? Does coldness inevitably play a role in such a tableau? These questions are central to the way we respond to the photos of Mapplethorpe, who relies on sexualized spectacle to convince us of the esthetic rightness of his art.

There are times when likeness of image results not from actual imitation but rather from an artist happening to inhabit similar ground of an earlier time—Franz Kline and Chinese calligraphy being a good example. Kline contended that Chinese art was not an influence in his work, although, to the eyes of most who look at his art, it must seem as though he had made a close study of Chinese painting. Despite the similarities, it seems to me that we must respect Kline’s claim. So it may be that Mapplethorpe’s classicism is out of kilter with the idea that he is reimagining the past; the closeness of his work to that of the mannerist classical may well be the product of an arbitrary similarity rather than of deliberate imitation. Granted, there are a number of images that are of classical busts, such as Apollo (1988), in which Mapplethorpe clearly confides in us his longing for an objective vision, even when the perfectionism of his stance distances us from, rather than closes us in on, the magnificence of the sculpture. One Mapplethorpe quotation in the catalogue says, “If I had been born one or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make sculpture.” Perhaps his most successful studies are of the female bodybuilders Lisa Lyon and Lydia Cheng, where the emphasis on the nude body appears antiseptic and chaste, giving viewers the sense that there is such a thing as a perfect nude. Here, it seems to me, are the works closest in spirit to the classical tradition, as opposed to the facile eroticism of some Mapplethorpe pictures, his black male nudes especially.

The inclusion of portrait photos seems a bit disingenuous—how are images of Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman neoclassical in feeling? Probably the most striking of Mapplethorpe’s art are the remarkable studies of flowers. His sinuous 1988 study of a poppy, its stem interwoven with that of an unopened bud, has the energy of a true sexual charge, just like his view of an orchid a year earlier, its striped and dotted blossom delicate in the manner of a man or woman’s sex. Here the artist’s obsession with sexuality is reduced to a pure study of form, and the close attention he pays to the flowers merits an equally focused attention on the part of his audience. The eroticism of these images is quite original, demanding an audience to regard the works for what they are, in the sense that they stand outside the often-facile sexuality of Mapplethorpe’s nudes. It is hard to make this point without sounding prudish, but the artist’s sexuality suggests a certain coyness in many of his erotic pictures, whereas his studies of nature are every bit as sensual as his overtly sexualized photos, but, for the most part, remain unmarred by the cold, pornographic eye that has endeared him to a certain kind of viewer. Here, the subject matter conditions the attitude: the flowers are eroticized but remain flowers—that is, part of a natural language that is resiliently sensual without being shown or seen as soft porn.

Even the injection of a conscious classicism cannot save Mapplethorpe’s art from its self-aware artiness, its inflated agreement with its own goals. It is hard to take his fine-art sense as indicative of more than a closed formalism; it is a truncated version of what classicism is truly about, which to my mind points more to restraint than to emotional and physical coldness. Even the perfection of the orchids cannot explain the curious vision of Mapplethorpe, who wants at once to shock and seduce us. To convey these conflicting emotions at the same time is to hope that the sexuality of the images conveys not only the excess of desire but also some sort of emotional tie. For me, the emotional tie is missing, victim of an excessively sexualized reading of human nature. The same thing can be said for misbegotten heterosexual eroticism: consider Jeff Koons’s versions of his encounters with his porn-star wife. As important as sexuality is, it cannot sustain the esthetics of committed relations, whether gay or straight, by itself. As a result, despite the images’ intimacy, the effect of their communication is abstract. Mapplethorpe challenges us to encounter a subversion of love’s supremacy, in which classicism is boldly suggested as a way to keep physical love as well as form alive. But perhaps for more than a few of us, Mapplethorpe’s vision does not do justice to his larger concerns, primarily the civil—and esthetic—equality of sexual preference. His language pushes away at the same time that it contracts, leaving the viewer confused as to what is being voiced. In that sense, Mapplethorpe strikes me as his own worst enemy, almost caricaturing the very values he asserts. As happens with much sexualized material, what you see is what you get. For this viewer, that was not enough.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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