An excess of self-portraits as well as of his pal Patti Smith conveyed the sniff of self-indulgence. Then in October, at the Palais de Tokyo, I got a fuller view of his oeuvre—and began to be interested.
The French grouped his homoerotic pictures in a back, X-rated room with a disclaimer. Except for the clearly contentious “Man in Polyester Suit,” in which a headless black man displays his semi-erect penis, Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images are oddly distanced. You think of Greek idealism—bodies so perfect in their arête that you are reflexively ashamed of your own flesh.
Certainly these celebrations of man-to-man love are 180 degrees removed from, say, the glory-hole sleaze of promiscuous San Francisco bath houses. They are even strangely ascetic in their aestheticism.
In Paris, Mapplethorpe co-showed with Elliot Erwitt, that witty oddball of a photographer, an ironic Diogenes who prowls our precincts looking for the funny serendipity. The juxtaposition told me one thing that made me nervous about Mapplethorpe—his high humorlessness.
An aura of gloom, a promotion of disaster stalks his images. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing his affliction with AIDS. But however gifted he is as a pioneer of new experiences, he could still use a little levity. “How serious I am,” he seems to bray at me.
With these sorts of already-formed thoughts, I went to the Institute for Contemporary Art’s local ample retrospective. It’s the most catholic of the three retros (it was too hot for my muse to travel to New York last summer to see how the Whitney handled him.)
For a start, it exposes the 3-D mirror sculptures—“everyone can be his own Narcissus” play panes (it’s the nearest he gets to a saving wit). And it displays the marvelously evocative flower photos. Even if this artist were not a frontiersman of homosexual experience, he would merit our attention for the stunning classicism of these flower pictures.
And his celebrations of Lisa Lyons, body builder, are the strongest statements of female sensuousness I have ever seen. I hate body-building as an activity. Nonetheless, her body, especially emerging dripping wet from the sea, is an apotheosis of the female body. Bisexuality has never had a stronger voice.
Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” asserts that, in the beginning, America was “artless, unstoried and unenhanced,” until our artists and writers domesticated our new experiences in permanently resonant forms of poem, painting and photo.
Mapplethorpe is surely an eloquent enhancer. His sexiness does not reside in the occasional free-standing black dick, but rather in his Blakean celebration of the uses of discrete human experiences. How sad that he is dying so young. His images will surely live forever.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment: At ICA, 34th and Walnut Streets, through January 29.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 1988