Gordon Campbell, ‘The Freedom to Be Shocking’ Listener, 30 September 1995.
Six years after he died in New York of AIDS, Robert Mapplethorpe poses the biggest challenge to our censorship laws since the 1960s—when the film censor, ruled that the film Ulysses could only be shown if men and women sat apart in the cinema. A major retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s photographs is bound for the Wellington City Gallery in December, to run until February. The reception it gets should tell us quite a lot about our artistic maturity.
The battle lines have been drawn. Graeme Lee of the Christian Democrats: ‘We think this exhibition should not be shown at all. The advice we have from the US clearly tells us that Mapplethorpe is not appropriate.’ Lee seeks to make it an issue during the local-body elections. All the Wellington mayoral candidates will be asked to pledge that, if elected, they will ban the show. ‘I think they should be asked to nail their colours to the mast.’
As things stand, New Zealand libraries and bookshops may already be unwittingly breaking the law over their treatment of Mapplethorpe. His work is readily available here. Yet the office of Chief Censor Kathryn Paterson has just given an R18 rating to the art-gallery catalogue that will accompany the Wellington exhibition, adding that the catalogue can only be available to the public if it is sealed in a plastic bag.
On the face of it, this seems absurd. The same photographs, I point out to Paterson, have been freely available in libraries and bookshops for years, without causing pandemonium in the community. ‘If they are, they may well be breaking the law because they may also warrant an R18 and a clear plastic bag’, Paterson replies. So, if there was a complaint, every book on Mapplethorpe may have to be removed or displayed less openly? Paterson: ‘That’s right.’
Mapplethorpe died in 1989. He still retains the ability to shock, and to arouse controversy. In 1990, the city of Cincinnati launched (and lost) a major obscenity case against an art gallery that showed his work. The exhibition in Wellington is not the same as the one that raised the ruckus in Cincinnati—but it contains some of the images that featured in the obscenity case. The retrospective, says City Gallery director Paula Savage, offers a ‘once only’ chance to see a wide range of work from one of the leading photographers of our time.
Why does Mapplethorpe arouse controversy? His notoriety is based on his celebration of the gay subculture as it burst to prominence in New York in the 1970s, pre AIDS. A small number of his photos feature naked children. On the whole, Savage agrees, the show could be controversial, even though only 10 percent of the 240 images are sexually explicit.
The censor cannot be further involved at this stage. As Paterson stresses, her R18 censorship ruling refers only to the catalogue. The exhibition itself, now on the high seas and headed for Wellington, is a separate case, and the public—if so moved—could seek to have it censored once the exhibition opens.
All of which makes Savage a rather brave gallery director. So what does this make Wellington—a city that cancels its car race, and puts on a display of dirty pictures?
‘Not at all. Mapplethorpe is a great photographer’, Savage says firmly, and no ratepayer funds will be involved in putting on the exhibition. With a $7 admission fee the exhibition will go into profit once 10,000 customers pass through the door. The recent Peter McIntyre collection at the same gallery has attracted some 25,000 people, so she is optimistic that Mapplethorpe will pay the way.
Hers is a fine line to walk, responsibly. How can you showcase the best in modern art, without causing the public needless offence? In line with the censorship of the catalogue, the exhibition will also be restricted to people 18 years and over. Signs will warn the public about the sexually explicit content. All this, taken together with the admission fee, Savage says, should ensure that any adult who attends the show does so by their own free and informed will.
That freedom matters to her. Artistic freedom, she feels, belongs right up there with free speech, a free press, and the right to vote. The gallery exists, Savage says, to foster excellence in the arts. While the Mapplethorpe show is here, she plan to run forums on topics such as art and censorship, the place of photography in art history, and—in unison with the AIDS Foundation—the impact of AIDS on the art world.
‘That’s our responsibility’, she says, almost with an air of fatalism about the flak she is bound to catch. ‘If you’re going to present the best in modern art you need to be pushing the boundaries. We’re supposed to be here to challenge people, to educate them, and to make them think. Its our job.’
Given the chance, will the ordinary public want to shut this exhibition down—or will they, like the conservative jurors in Cincinnati, come down on the side of supporting freedom of choice. One striking aspect of the Mapplethorpe case in Cincinnati was that none of the jurors had visited an art gallery in years, none knew of Mapplethorpe and none of them liked what they saw—but they felt duty bound in the courtroom to defend his artistic freedom.
We never knew things like this existed, one juror later said. ‘As far as we were concerned’, juror Anthony Eckstein told the press after the trial, ‘these pictures were gross and lewd … But we felt we had no choice, even if we didn’t like them. We learned that art does not have to be pretty.’
Given the chance, wouldn’t the ordinary people of Wellington also support freedom over censorship? Well, Lee replies, if those US jurors let things be shown that they personally found distasteful then … ‘I don’t have much time for that sort of thinking.’ He is not claiming to speak for the public, he says, merely asking the candidates to declare ‘where they stand’. As things do stand right now, the city council is contractually bound—for a figure believed to be in the vicinity of $50,000 to $60,000—to proceed. The papers have been signed, and ratepayers would have to pay up if their new mayor broke the contract.
So Lee is really pressuring the candidates to spend ratepayer money to buy Wellington out of its contract on this exhibition, sight unseen? Lee: ‘It’s only money … The challenge is to put standards ahead of money.’
So what is in these photographs? Obviously, the ones likely to rouse controversy cannot be shown in a family magazine. Man in the Polyester Suit, for instance, shows a man in a cheap suit, with his penis hanging out of his trousers.
Pornography? Well, the penis is black—and big—and this leads the art historian Kobena Mercer to inquire in the rather pretentious exhibition notes whether Mapplethorpe is really summoning from out of ‘our political unconscious one of the deepest mythological fears. Namely, the belief that all black men have monstrously huge willies.’ Thus, she feels, Mapplethorpe is asking us ‘to examine [our] own implication in the fantasies that the images arouse’.
Back on planet Earth, the ordinary viewer is just as likely to be struck by the variety of subjects in the Mapplethorpe show. There are men photographed in bondage gear—along with celebrity portraits (Donald Sutherland, Isabella Rossellini, Patti Smith, etc), several self-portraits, many flower photos, and dozens of arresting images of beauty, ugliness and loss, including a self-portrait of the dying Mapplethorpe holding a tiny skull. And then there is Rosie, a photograph of a very young girl sitting on a step, with her genitals clearly visible.
Rosie is the one image likely to unite both moral conservatives and feminists in opposition to the show. The recent furore over the little girl in the firefighters calendar shows how aware the public already is about questions of kiddie porn. How can Savage justify putting this image on display? Even if it wanted to, Savage replies, the City Gallery has no power to alter the exhibition. The Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York selected the images and specified how they must be hung. However, she points out, the Rosie photograph was taken with the consent of the girl’s mother—who paid Mapplethorpe $10,000 for the entire session—and both the mother and Rosie herself (now an adult) have consented to the inclusion of the photograph in the exhibition. The exploitation of the real Rosie is not an issue.
To Lee, Rosie is the basis for his opposition to the show. ‘She’s photographed in a way that exposes her genitalia. Therefore, there is no way that can be construed as other than abhorrent, and is an act of paedophilia.’ To Savage, however, Rosie is ‘a depiction of the innocence of children’s sexuality’. So any prurience is in the eye of the beholder? ‘Exactly.’ This argument carried the day in Cincinnati, where art experts testified that Rosie was a ‘before the fall’ image of childhood innocence, devoid of sexual content.
This is unlikely to satisfy everyone. After all, Rosie is a photograph of an anonymous child in a public setting, her body exposed to viewers who are not innocent at all. Down at the censors office Rosie was, Paterson confirms, the subject of intense debate.
Under law, she says, children are protected under two headings. First, whether the publication promoted, or tended to promote or support the exploitation of children for sexual purposes. In her view, this is ‘a low-threshold test’, and one that she was convinced the catalogue did not transgress ‘in any way’. Second, the more difficult matter: does Rosie exploit the nudity of a child? Paterson: ‘We felt the level of exploitation was not such that the publication should be objectionable.’ In the exhibition itself, Paterson adds, her decision may change if Rosie was placed too near the sexually explicit photographs. The context can be decisive.
Artistic merit must also be considered, under the legislation. According to Paterson, Mapplethorpe’s standing in the art world was ‘factored’ into her decision. This, does not mean, she stresses, that just because it’s art, anything goes. Art can still be deemed ‘injurious to the public good’. So, really, the art world is just one more pressure group? ‘It is another interest group I guess’, Paterson replies, ‘with a point of view. Just like there are other groups who may have a position about fetishistic behaviour … Having said that, the law recognises that the nudity of children is not objectionable per se. The context of it is very important. And what it is promoting or supporting is also very important.’
Did the fact that Mapplethorpe is a famous artist carry any weight with Graeme Lee? ‘Well’, he replies, ‘I’ve never heard of him.’ Among those who have, Mapplethorpe is not without his critics. Time’s Robert Hughes, for instance, decreed him ‘over-rated’ in his best seller Culture of Complaint and lamented that the political furore over Mapplethorpe has made it all but impossible to judge his real worth.
On the one hand, Hughes writes, the Mapplethorpe case has created an atmosphere of fear and self censorship amongst art galleries about their funding and the actions of moral pressure groups. On the other, art critics wishing to defend artistic freedom, he points out, often have to resort to evaluating some of Mapplethorpe’s most shocking photographs in ludicrously refined terms. Example: in this scene of sexual sadomasochism is the forearm a dominant aspect of form? Hughes: ‘This, I would say, is kind of exhausted and literally de-moralised aestheticism …’ Given the heated climate of art-as-politics, Hughes wails, critics such himself find it jolly difficult to decree just what’s what anymore.
Clearly, the citizens of Wellington will have a lot to chew over this summer. Auckland City Gallery is not taking the show. Through fear of causing offence? No, not at all say Auckland City Gallery art director Christopher Johnstone. He had other scheduling commitments but tried to the last to find a slot for it.
So, he’s really sorry that he’s not having Mapplethorpe in his gallery? Johnstone: ‘Oh, absolutely. We were very keen to take the show.’
Luckily, Mapplethorpe is hot again in the art world right now. A new biography has come out, triggering a rash of five-page articles in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Mainly devoted to his unpleasant personality, his icky sexual tastes and his dabblings in Satanism. This time at least, New Zealand cannot be accused of trailing along five years after New York stopped talking about someone.
Good for business, all round. The hint of controversy and the whiff of perversity will draw the punters. That, Lee says, is the trouble right now with art. ‘There is’, he feels, ‘a worldwide attempt to mix sexuality and sensuousness with what is often quite reasonable art—to the point where people are drawn into these shows for the wrong reasons.’
Across town, Savage feels just as strongly that the show must go on. ‘I would be very disturbed’, Savage concludes, ‘if any politician succeeded in railroading through a decision about this show, based on his own personal beliefs. The politician should be above that—just as I have to be as a director.’
Tessa Laird, ‘Perfect Death’, Monica, April 1996.
Mapplethorpe enjoys the privileged status of being simultaneously controversial, and a thoroughly palatable, insipid, and saleable commodity. His estate has won matronly patronage worldwide, buyers of second-hand salaciousness less interested in the images for their titillative value than precisely because their residual dangerous sexuality has been neatly expunged (bar the S&M shots which don’t get commercially reproduced).
Germano Celant liberally daubed his jaded curatorial speech with the epithet ‘classicist’, which I finally understood to be a euphemism for ‘purveyor of cliches’. It is hard to know whether Mapplethorpe, whose very name is now an adjective for controversy (Celant’s favourite drollery), was an iconographic genius whose images’ endless reproduction has led to their redundancy, or if his notoriety outstripped his talent and innovation.
Some works still sear the eye; Man in a Polyester Suit for example, the cropping of which reminds me of Alexis Hunter’s 197os polyptych Object Series representing masculinity in raunchily reductive detail. Celant, no doubt a silk and linen-reared Italian, called the cock magnificent and the suit awful. In my opinion, the polyester and the dick resonate the same repugnant fascination of alien texture, irresistible cheapness, instant gratification (no ironing, drip dry) as well as an acceptance of impossibility; the manufactured garment is just as unlikely a creation as the Magnum member.
Implied racism rears its ugly head, so to speak, here and throughout the exhibition. Homosexuality seems to give Mapplethorpe the mandate to objectify black bodies, and the saving grace of irony is just a critical whitewash over his dodgy essentialism (which, by the way, isn’t even original. American photographer George Platt Lynes was doing the same black-and-white male-nude dichotomy thang, back in the 194os and 195os).
The flier tagging along with the exhibition since its installation in Sydney’s MCA tries desperately to argue that Watermelon with a Knife is really a statement about American racial stereotypes (like the seemingly innocuous photograph of a pineapple by Clarence John Laughlin in the Hallmark Collection, which, according to the caption, bespoke ‘constellations of dichotomies’). But no amount of speak can gloss what is in fact a chintzy piece of magazine art with a corny smoke-generated background, second only in abysmally cheap chic to the venetian-blind shadows which score every second butt and the odd unfortunate aubergine.
All of Mapplethorpe’s work is instinctively ‘clean’—his obsession with hairless victims of alopecia suggests a paranoia of imperfection that leads to an unpleasant stasis in his work. There is none of the abundance of the Dutch masters in his sanitised presentation of flowers. Perfection disallows both the bloempots’ joie de vivre and calm acceptance of decay. Shakespeare’s sonnets, with their homosexual bias and floral motifs, foregrounded beauty by acknowledging the immanence of its demise. But Mapplethorpe’s prize reproductive organs, both plant and human, are posed and poised in the ‘perfect moment’ and its bid to outlive fate, making the same lies about life as advertising.
It could be argued that immortality is a fair obsession for someone with a terminal illness, but consider Derek Jarman’s incredibly moving final film Blue, in which his own physical deterioration was translated into the medium of film, and the blank blue screen became a painful and poignant reminder of real decay. Mapplethorpe, however, with his defiant black-framed skull-toting self portrait, only ever wants to be remembered as sexy. Conversely, his most notorious self
portrait with a bull whip up his arse does work, despite knee-jerk controversy and transparent devilish iconography, precisely because of its imperfection. In his struggle to achieve such a difficult pose with a self-timer, Mapplethorpe’s face betrays a complex of emotions including embarrassment. The original Lucifer was no doubt just as bemused and harried when he found himself cast from heaven.
Jean Genet, another Catholic homosexual who can be accused of the same obsessional oscillation between pretty flowers and rough sex, says of vision, ‘the beauty of a living thing can be grasped only fleetingly. To pursue it in time with the sight and the imagination is to view it in its decline, for after the thrilling moment in which it reveals itself it diminishes in intensity.’ Mapplethorpe eschews sight and imagination for the superficiality of this perfect or thrilling moment. He is only ever perfectly good, or perfectly bad Homosexuality versus Catholicism in the ring of perpetual dichotomy.
Mapplethorpe doesn’t reject traditional morality, he simply inverts it, like Genet, he makes saints of criminals and suppurating cocks out of virginal flowers. Immorality imposes the same stifling sets of rules; its almost fascist emphasis on excellence belies any notion of the freedom of amorality.
Mapplethorpe condemns homosexuality to a banality of endless binarism, which satisfies both ends of the market and leads to a false unification of S&M sex practice with the world at large via some saccharine postcards and calendars.
Rosemary McLeod, ‘She’s Jake: It’s All in the Name of Art’, Dominion, 14 December 1995.
Me, I go for culture. So I paid $7 to go and see the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Wellington City Art Gallery this week. It’s art, you see. From New York.
All right, I had misgivings. Would it be like being caught at a rerun of Hair or Oh Calcutta? Could you, like, afford to be seen there?
I decided I could. Gay is groovy, and an AIDS death (the artist’s) makes it groovier. But what is grooviest of all is when there’s a fuss over a picture of a little girl’s genitals, like there was before last Friday’s exhibition opening. The little girl’s picture is in the exhibition, you see, and some people find that sort of picture unusual. They wonder why anyone would take such a picture deliberately who was not a sleaze bucket.
Not me, though. Anywhere where little girls’ genitals on view is jake with me, because I’m really open-minded and unjudgmental. It’s different in the local courthouse, of course, because then it’s pornography. For some reason, Graeme Lee and the Christian Democrats don’t understand that. But then, they’re Christians.
Luckily, the show’s curator, one Germano Celant, said the photograph was commissioned and selected by the subject’s own family. I call that a defence. You know, the picture is just a family-album shot that thousands of people can look at on a wall, that’s all. ‘It is the people projecting themselves on the photograph that makes it pornographic’, explains Mr Celant, whose full-time job is taking Mapplethorpe’s artistic vision around the art traps of the world. If he doesn’t know, who does?
Okay, so some families are more artistic than others. I don’t know anyone who owns photographs of their own genitals, or their kids’, in albums or out of them. But then, they’re not artists. And so I paid my money and viewed Mr Mapplethorpe’s family albums.
It was a truly beautiful experience, okay? I really recommend it to the people of Wellington, who will find nothing else on view in their rates-funded art gallery for the next eight weeks. There are penises and testicles falling out of underpants, out of suits, out of leather-fronted trousers with an appropriate gap. They are slack, semi-tumescent and erect, black and white. One is tied up with tight string. They are large, like giant slugs.
Hey, lots of people go for this sort of thing. There is a masked man peeing into another man’s mouth. There are flowers, and celebrities, and even people without visible genitalia. There is an intellectually challenging triptych: penises on either side, and a mirror in the middle. ‘Hey, man, you are part of this’, it seems to say. You know, it’s something to think about.
And there is the little girl with her vagina, whom Mr Lee so worries about. ‘It’s so innocent’, said Mr Celant, of this particular photograph, as he warmed to the theme of the artist’s honesty.
On the same wall, the photographer himself poses with a bullwhip’s handle up his rectum. It looks very uncomfortable.
There are a lot of things you can do with $7. So beauteous did I find Mr Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait that I might, briefly, have gladly done any of them. But I rallied to the challenge. ‘What gorgeous Art’, I gushed. ‘I must bring my grandmother.’ I’m not open minded for nothing.
You can do a lot with $7. You can have seven rides on a bus from Courtenay Place to the railway station. You can buy a packet of mince at the supermarket. Make no mistake, there’s a lot to be said for the view along Willis St and Lambton Quay from a Stagecoach bus. But me, I go for culture every time.
James Mack, ‘Mapplethorpe’s Personal Truth’, Evening Post, 14 December 1995.
This large retrospective which has roused so much controversy around the world is a curatorial tour de force.
Mapplethorpe looks so good and so bad because curator Celant has magnificently orchestrated this exhibition to ensure that the juxtaposition of images renders the already tough tougher, and the already sublime even more beautiful.
Celant also places Mapplethorpe into a historical photographic context, and the beautifully produced catalogue ($90) expounds that place in words and images. The catalogue essays should be read by everyone who seriously immerses themselves in Mapplethorpe’s imagery.
When the squishy Pierre et Gilles exhibition was on view I noted that this is not the way I would like the world to see me as a gay man. I would not want my essential self identified with Mapplethorpe’s images either. With Pierre et Gilles we got campy fluff and nonsense; with Mapplethorpe, no matter how much the homo sado-maso images intrude, they are achieved with an integrity to the medium of photography. Coupled with this often morbid intensity Mapplethorpe also has a mischievous sense of humour that is naughtily intelligent. He is not technically adventurous. His imagery, as Celant points out, is statuesque, Michelangelo-esque and often bordering on the Baroque. But what he did know was what process to use to best enhance a given negative. His platinum prints are beautiful in the extreme. The quality of the darks is as powerful as a well-laid aquatint. The quality of the medium tones is lustrous. The quality of the highlights rich without the intrusive reflective qualities of many silver-gelatin images.
Catalogue nos. 172, 174, and 178 of the same negative of irises in a lustre vase on gelatin, platinum, and in photogravure shows Mapplethorpe’s control over each of the mediums. In the upstairs gallery are a small series of dye-transfer images of flowers that are knockouts. Dye transfer is the most complex and most difficult of the colour processes, but it’s worth it for the sublime colour and the conservation longevity of the prints.
Mapplethorpe makes this 1988 suite of flowers appear almost as sexual as his more explicit human images.
Mapplethorpe as a sometime sensualist and a sometime satyr is epitomised in one of my favourite images, no. 124, in which two prickly aerated swan-plant seedheads rest on the top of a lustrous black phallic vase. It’s funny, it’s, naughty, it’s a great photograph.
The only images in the show that I felt were let down by their process were 142, 143, and 144. These Cibachromes of Ken Moody have too much surface dazzle to be able to read the images properly. What a hypnotically beautiful man Ken Moody is, and almost miraculously you know him without eye contact. He always has his eyes closed. His black flesh rendered metallic by Mapplethorpe and enhanced by the silver-gelatin process has created one of the most important portrait images in the history of photography. Saatchi and Saatchi have done the City Gallery proud with their poster using the Ken Moody portrait.
My favourite man image in the show is no. 67, Man in a Polyester Suit, in which a headless, sartorially resplendent black man exposes a large tumescent slug of penile flesh. The contrasts are wonderfully naughty but photographically splendid. I also like no. 80 of Lisa Lyons, one of his long-time models, resplendent in the erotic finery of black corseted underwear, holding a mirror to her face and acting out the part of a modern day Hathor. My favourite flowers are the platinum print of Tulips (1988).
My favourite juxtaposition in the show is in the downstairs gallery west. No. 83 shows a vase of bird-of-paradise flowers and alongside is no. 76 of a young man with a DA haircut whose features are in dark impenetrable shadow. They reflect the essence of each other—both cocky, both beautiful.
Everywhere you go in this exhibition you are assaulted, titillated, and seduced by images of pain as pleasure, gender-bending, textural beauty, overt sexuality both homo and hetero, lots of large penes and celebrations of life and pending death. The late self portrait with skull cane is a poignant image that portends Mapplethorpe’s early death and proclaims the tragedy of AIDS as its malignancies shred life and dignity from yet another important artist.
I would encourage everyone who has an open mind to see this testament to personal truth.
Several of the images are really tough. It must be remembered Mapplethorpe was reflecting his time and place.
Mark Amery, ‘Devil or Darling?’, Capital Times, 13–19 December 1995
This exhibition will be remembered in New Zealand as one of the most important of the decade. Both because it has tested our moral boundaries and because this huge show demonstrates what a fine artist Mapplethorpe is. Congratulations to the City Gallery, which has not only been brave enough to face the inevitable controversy but also to devote its entire gallery space to a major retrospective of a contemporary artist (a photographer at that).
Mapplethorpe’s work is above the pornographic pit. It proclaims itself as high art, and delivers stylistically everything that traditionally would make it qualify. This is a collection of stunningly beautiful images, which celebrate, rather than denigrate, the human form. Yes, the penis, flaccid and erect, is a reoccuring icon. The sexual organ is treated as a flower, and the flower, which also often appears, as a sexual organ. The orchid dominates, a flower which has always held strong sexual associations.
Mapplethorpe’s attention to symbolism and the stylisation of his subject matter, demonstrate an approach that fits snugly into artistic tradition.
His approach to the nude is in fact very traditional. Both surface detail and composition are classically inspired and idealistic. His figures are carefully arranged in the studio, often echoing poses (sometimes even overtly) that we are familiar with from the ancient Greeks on. If it were not for the warmth of the flesh and ever-present eye contact, these could be sculptures.
Mapplethorpe comes on like a contemporary Michelangelo, with the same loving attention to the beauty and eroticism of the perfect body, from the rippling of muscle and the richness of skin, to the body as perfection, isolated and lit in a magnificent fashion. Like Michelangelo the focus is on the male; unlike him, the models are predominantly black. Throughout these 240 images we see daring experiments in photographic form. Mapplethorpe is unafraid of exploring glamour in a way that confronts as well as meets fashion. There is also a clear consistency in style and concern, allowing him to build an iconography.
This retrospective demands a mature response from viewers. The works must be considered as a whole. And, while some may object to Mapplethorpe’s graphical depictions of sex (but love his portraits of stars like Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol, and Patti Smith), everyone can find something to adore here. It is your ability to accept Mapplethorpe’s broadness of vision that is important.
There is plenty which could have been selected to have provided a ‘safe’ unchallenging exhibition, but such a show would have done no justice to the ideas of the artist. It would also insult the discernment and intelligence of the public.
Mark Amery, ‘Mapplethorpe Well Hung and Well Balanced’ , Sunday Star Times, 24 December 1995. Excerpt.
If Mapplethorpe’s subject matter is controversial, the same can not be said for his exquisite treatment of it, which is highly fashionable. His work presents us with a fascinating amalgam of ideas from the history of painting, sculpture and photography. His attention to ideal form and beauty as a symbolic vessel is steeped in the traditions of art and fashion.
Mapplethorpe often plays the sculptor. His subjects are carefully arranged and photographed outside the studio …
However, while the camera may stop just before a hint of genitalia comes into view in a body lotion commercial, Mapplethorpe’s doesn’t. While the advertisement excites our imagination, he completes the picture to provide colder, ideal images, less erotic but more sexual. Mapplethorpe appears to hold the opinion that pornography is about the treatment of the subject rather than the subject itself.
Mapplethorpe is always interested in the mystery of sexuality as an exploration of spirit, whether it be the act of intercourse, S&M, female bodybuilding or capturing the individual glow of a celebrity like Donald Sutherland or Laurie Anderson.
Mapplethorpe may have had a unique vision, but it was not radical. These works would have been much less successful and controversial if Mapplethorpe hadn’t been so plainly traditional and accessible.
John Daly-Peoples, ‘Life Seen through the Unusual Lens of Robert Mapplethorpe’ , National Business Review, 8 December 1995.
The exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that opened at Wellington’s City Gallery last night is a bold and brave move by the gallery and director, Paula Savage. Exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe have in the past consistently attracted large crowds to the exhibition—as well as streets full of protesting righteous moralists who regard the work as subversive and morally corrupting.
The City Gallery has presented not just a photographic show but a demonstration of the relationship of censorship to the arts and of the need for freedom of artistic expression. The exhibition shows that art forms have an incredible power to generate emotional, moral and spiritual reactions.
Mapplethorpe’s show takes the City Gallery close to being a shrine or sanctuary for we enter an exhibition that touches the soul.
There are 240 photographs in the show covering his work from 1970 up to 1989. His full range of work is represented—the celebrity pictures, the flowers, the nudes, as well as twenty of the impressive and intimidating sexually dramatic encounters. It has been the sexually provocative works that have made him the centre of much debate in the US.
In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington was forced to cancel a major exhibition of his work.
In 1990, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre was closed when police took an action against the centre and its director for the display of salacious material.
The court, however, found the photographs were art rather than pornography.
In all his work, there is something different about the way Mapplethorpe sees the world.
Most photographers see the photograph as a way of understanding their social, political and natural environment.
Mapplethorpe seems intent on imposing his vision of the world on us.
He takes us into a world created in his own image.
The people in his images exist for and because of Robert Mapplethorpe.
There is often mention made that Mapplethorpe in his celebrity photographs manages to express the temperaments and the personalities of the sitters.
But when we look at the multitude of photos of Patti Smith, we see a multitude of different people.
His portraits of composer Philip Glass, architect Philip Johnson, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger tell us little about the sitters but a lot about the controls and concerns of Mapplethorpe.
He has made them over, transforming them into inhabitants of his own self-referential world.
His flower photos often seem like inventions, still-life objects from some exotic location. They insist that we look at them, scrutinise them because they are bizarre and fantastic. Mapplethorpe makes us aware that these groups of flowers have characteristics we had not considered.
It is not just that he sees the sexual connections between flesh and flowers.
There is a transubstantiation, as though Mapplethorpe has used some form of alchemy to change the nature of the world.
This aspect of the magician, the ability to change or transform things, was central to Mapplethorpe’s portraying himself as a devil, an angel, a woman. He made himself appear mercurial.
Of his sadomasochistic photographs, Mapplethorpe said: ‘For me, S&M means sex and magic, not sadomasochism. It was about trust.’ In these works, Mapplethorpe insists on making us voyeurs to these acts of trust between himself and his subjects and raises issues about the viewer’s relationship with those subjects.
Mapplethorpe also introduces the penis as a photographic subject. In his Man in Polyester Suit, we are confronted with the suit, penis, and hands of a black man as though these are what defines the person.
It highlights a major theme in Mapplethorpe’s work, that we are defined by our sexuality as much as our personality or other attributes.
These attempts to understand and present the nature of sexuality are both frightening and cathartic.
City Gallery has had to take some decisions about censorship. The catalogue was submitted to the censor and it was given an R18 rating. The gallery then decided to restrict the show to people aged over 18. The alternative—removing work from the exhibition—was not considered.
Director Paula Savage was determined to keep the exhibition intact. ‘It is very worrying when galleries start censoring what goes in their exhibition [from] the fear that it will cause controversy or that there will be political repercussions.’
‘Galleries are curators of freedom and that is one of their roles in society. There is a lot of contemporary art which provokes and challenges and is controversial. But it also inspires and satisfies as well.’
‘Art has a role in changing people’s attitudes, changing beliefs in society. Art is an agent of social change.’
‘A lot of artists question the status quo and that can be threatening. But the artist’s role is to look at aspects of life which people prefer to deny or prefer to keep hidden.’
‘Often we are unwilling to talk about issues. Mapplethorpe has confronted issues of identity and sexuality, issues which are taboo. And in confronting the extremes of sexuality, he takes away something of the secrecy which has often shrouded these areas. That is why his work is and will remain controversial.’
While Ms Savage is delighted that the exhibition is only being shown in Wellington, it is disappointing that no other gallery in New Zealand has chosen to show it.
In Sydney and Perth, there was little controversy and the show was seen by 120,000 people. At least the decision by other galleries not to take the risk of having the show indicates there is still a reluctance to deal with the really difficult issues of censorship and sexuality. It also indicates that maybe Wellington is a more culturally mature city. As one of the sponsors of the show, the Park Royal Hotel is providing a special offer for out-of-town visitors to the city.
The opening function was a special fundraising event with all proceeds going to the AIDS Foundation.
The City Gallery is also holding a forum on censorship and art.
Mike Houlahan, ‘The Frank Images of the Mapplethorpe Retrospective’ , Evening Post, 5 December 1995.
If there is one work in the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, about to open at the City Gallery, which best sums up the controversy the exhibition of works by the late photographer has created, it is Bill: New York (1976–7).
The work is a rectangle in three sections. The left and right sections are close ups of erect penises being manipulated by a hand. The centre panel is a mirror.
‘You are part of the picture’, exhibition curator Germano Celant says.
‘You look, you are embarrassed because they are two big cocks, and you don’t know what to do. It’s an emotional thing. You reflect yourself, you reflect your desire, your repulsion. You reflect the reaction you have towards art.’
The Mapplethorpe Retrospective has certainly provoked plenty of reaction from, from conservatives and libertarians alike.
‘I don’t think any artist enjoys controversy’, Celant says.
‘It is people who project. What they see is what they project, which is not what they see. If they see something that is scandalous they project that scandal—not because the work is scandalous.’
‘It depends on the perspective you are coming from. Your perspective is your education, your way of thinking, it’s what you reflect. That’s why the mirror is so important.’
In an effort to forestall controversy, the City Gallery placed an R18 entry restriction on the exhibition and got its catalogue examined by the Film and Literature Classification Office. It received an R18 rating.
Celant is no stranger to Mapplethorpe or controversies. While travelling the world as an aspiring art historian, he stayed a while in Mapplethorpe’s studio and the two became friends.
‘I had the chance to not only work with him and to become his friend, but to also go through his archives’, Celant recalls.
‘I came to know his work very well and it became the start of many things—a book on his work, an exhibition.’
After Mapplethorpe’s death through AIDS-related illness in 1989 a charitable organisation, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, was set up. It established the Mapplethorpe Retrospective and asked Celant to curate it.
He agreed as a personal and professional tribute to Mapplethorpe. His aim is for the show to have a million visitors. So far around 600,000 have seen it.
For Celant, people talking about the show is all very well, but he wants people to see the exhibition, then make up their minds about it.
‘I think preconceived ideas about the exhibition will collapse as soon as people see the show. That is my experience throughout the tour, that there’s all this scandal that people talk about, but as soon as you see it you know what it is about.’
For Celant, Mapplethorpe’s work is about the artist talking about the things he liked—sex, black men, flowers, beauty—being conscious of what he was doing and not ashamed of it. ‘What I like about him is he was always a part of his work’, Celant says.
‘It is clear to me he was always part of the subject of his photography, which means he was socially responsible. Normally a photographer is a voyeur who stays behind the camera.’
‘Instead, throughout his life, from his teenage days until when he was dying, he always comes through as a subject. Which I think is a very responsible way of saying “I am part of what I am doing, I’m not taking myself out and saying I’m not involved, I’m part it this, I’m part of the experience”.’
Those experiences are frank. A gay man who enjoyed sadomasochism, that is sometimes what he shows in his photographs and in his self portraits. There are photographs of penises, of masturbation, of bondage; images of genital and physical torture, of sex, and homosexuality. They are side by side with other favourite subjects of Mapplethorpe, such as flowers. There are also portraits of the famous—Patti Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Andy Warhol, to name three—and the not so famous, such as Lisa Lyon, winner of the first world women’s bodybuilding championships and a frequent figure in Mapplethorpe’s work.
The exhibition is a chronological sequence of his career, from his initial collages of pictures from pornographic magazines to a chilling self portrait taken soon before his death.
‘He was not a voyeur, going around the streets capturing pictures’, Celant says.
‘He wanted you to be conscious and a part of it. He did my portrait and said “Do whatever you like. You can get undressed, you can stay rigid or whatever.” He had one-to-one relationships with his subjects. They were like love affairs and they could go true or not go true. “I remember once a beautiful bodybuilder. Bigger than him”, Celant said, indicating Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Schwarzenegger.
‘He came in and said he wanted a picture. Robert said, “Okay, go and get dressed.” We were waiting, and the guy came out with a wig, a bra, and stockings. It is a beautiful picture of him. It was a self-confident relationship, the studio was intimate.’
Mapplethorpe’s work was intimate and it was also often explicit and challenging. Celant acknowledges that during the photo shoot, daring The Post [[check]] to ‘be tough and take a photograph of two big cocks’. He is not interested in people taking half measures with an exhibition that makes no apologies.
‘At the time art was very conservative’, Celant says.
‘These works were an attempt to break through. There was no need of controversy, only to break the language of your own artistic territory.’
Peter Turner, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, New Zealand Journal of Photography, [dates unknown]. Excerpt.
Shadowed by contention and bolstered by a history of dramatic US court cases around obscenity, it seems likely that Mapplethorpe’s exhibition will attract huge attention. Indeed, the media circus has already started, which speaks loudly for the show’s PR value. But one question is not being asked. Outside its shock value, does the work merit such attention? A dispassionate view might liken his pictures to those of the nineteenth-century (gay) symbolist and aesthete Fred Holland Day who achieved fame within the pictorialist movement. One could even compare Mapplethorpe’s visual mannerisms to Edward Weston’s in his modernist mode, except that Weston said all that had to be said sixty years ago. Paula Savage, City Gallery Director, is on record as saying ‘Robert Mapplethorpe is undoubtedly one of the most important artists this century’. Robert Hughes, art critic of Time magazine is less enthusiastic—he calls the work ‘mannered chic’ and writes, ‘I have never been able to think of him as a major photographer.’ Allen Ellenzweig in The Homoerotic Photograph says, ‘His work does not assume social aims. There are no messages.’ Andy Grundberg, writing for the New York Times in 1988, speaks of its context ‘Roundly condemned ten years ago as unsuitable viewing for adults, much less children, it has since been admired, collected and valorized by Susan Sontag, Holly Solomon, the late Sam Wagstaff, and other influential cultural figures.’
Personally, I find the work slight and quite unimportant as an addition to the body photographic—all style and very little substance. I doubt somehow that I will be joining Wellington’s ex-mayor Fran Wilde at the $40-a-ticket opening, or even buying the catalogue, specially sealed to protect the innocent. Unless, of course, Graeme Lee gets his way. In which case, I’ll be out with my placard in City Square. Either way, I might just mail Mr Lee with a reading list of all the Robert Mapplethorpe books available for several years now through good bookshops in New Zealand. Or take him to my local dairy (it’s very close to Parliament) and show him a few of the ‘top shelf’ magazines on sale. Or we could take a trip to the local video-hire outlet. I bet he would love Storm in a D Cup.
‘Dragging Them In’, Listener, 13 April 1996.
When Wellington’s City Art Gallery Director Paula Savage proposed showing the R18 works of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, she was besieged by dissenters. A government minister accused her of promoting a ‘paedophile’s picnic’, and other critics warned that the gallery could be ruined by bad publicity: in the US, a gallery director presenting the exhibition had been charged with obscenity.
Savage privately worried that Customs would seize the works as they entered New Zealand, but publicly stood by her conviction that this was indeed art. This Sunday, on the first edition of the two-hour For Art’s Sake (midday, TV1), Savage reflects on the controversial show, which attracted 46,000 patrons between December and February—the gallery’s highest visitor tally—and made a healthy profit.
Savage discusses the personal and professional risks that she took, all the while observed by a media of ‘vultures, waiting for me to put a foot wrong’. ‘I don’t make moral judgments’, she adds. ‘My job is not to censor an exhibition because it’s going to make life uncomfortable.’ So would she mount a contentious show again? ‘There is potential’, she says. ‘There’s a possibility of a Joel-Peter Witkin exhibition that makes Robert Mapplethorpe look like a missionary.’