Robert Mapplethorpe was a New Yorker to his very core, a fact attested to by nearly every work in the impressive new two-museum retrospective “The Perfect Medium.” On the heels of the major joint acquisition of the Mapplethorpe archives by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2011, however, this sumptuous exhibition occupies prime real estate at two of Southern California’s grandest institutions. It churns with an earnest intensity and revels in Mapplethorpe’s fraught, unresolved mix of formal beauty and often dark subject matter. The old saying “you can take the man out of New York...” comes to mind, but the late photographer seems surprisingly at home in L.A. for the moment.
Ask anyone about Mapplethorpe and 9 times out of 10 you’ll hear references to the shock caused by his “vulgar” sex pictures, like the X Portfolio (1978), which became a lightning rod in the early days of the culture wars following the artist’s death from AIDS in 1989. You might hear about his photos of nude black men, subjects that he treated like sculptural materials, which have been roundly interrogated for their exploitativeness and underlying racism by the likes of Glenn Ligon and others. Thanks to the popularity of Patti Smith’s exquisitely haunting elegy to her relationship with Mapplethorpe (Just Kids, 2010), you might conjure up wistful nostalgia for the grit and idealism of 1970s New York City.
“The Perfect Medium” does little to buck these predominating ideas about Mapplethorpe, for to do so would be to ignore some of his best-known works. There’s a whole wall of Smith, from her iconic album cover portraits to more intimate shots such as a stunning nude taken in one of the Manhattan apartments the two artists shared. The eroticized gleam of muscled black bodies awaits you around every corner—always statuesque and usually erect, in stark contrast with the white men who he was more likely to show as the subjects of domination.
Both museums have sections devoted to his pleasing, if forgettable, flower studies, and the gauzy portraits of Manhattan scenesters like Debbie Harry, Laurie Anderson, and Andy Warhol make for an evocative, visually rich game of guess who. Of course, the images are perfectly composed and printed across the board. To see them all together now, the delicate lilies and the throbbing phalluses under one roof, you realize how empty the controversy around him really was. He wasn’t nearly as interested in provocation and obscenity as he was in classical forms and his place in art history.
There are several pockets of “The Perfect Medium” that upset the general Mapplethorpe narrative of sexual deviance and aesthetic purity, however, and these feel the most revelatory. LACMA hosts a preponderance of the early multimedia explorations he engaged in before settling on studio photography, including several brilliantly strange collages in which he explores nascent interests in modernist abstraction, mass media, and male nudity.
The young Mapplethorpe of Smith’s narrative—earnest, confident, endlessly hardworking—is near-palpable in the galleries, especially in his experimentations with three-dimensional media, such as the wonderful altarpiece and assemblages that feel as if they were thrown together from a mix of his own belongings. The humorous pairs of underwear mounted on stretchers make the later sexualized nudes feel lighter and more fun, less somber or pornographic. You remember he was once a young man blurring the lines between sex and art; how wrong it is to read these early works as decadent foreshadowings of the tragedy to come.
Both venues host several photographs from Mapplethorpe’s longtime collaboration with Lisa Lyon, the pioneering female bodybuilder he first met in 1980. Mapplethorpe was clearly fascinated with Lyon’s muscular body, which she reveals to the camera with defiance and utter confidence. The two represent radically different versions of androgyny. The images remind us that Mapplethorpe’s interest in the body was every bit as aesthetic as it was sexual.
The connection with Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s longtime lover and benefactor, helps ground the exhibition in both personal and institutional narratives. Mapplethorpe first met Wagstaff in 1972, and the two formed a partnership that would become crucially significant to the history of photography. Wagstaff, then a young curator, would go on to build one of the most important private collections of historic photographs, all the while championing Mapplethorpe’s work to institutions and collectors alike. That Wagstaff’s own collection resides in the Getty as well makes the Mapplethorpe archive’s new home feel a bit more appropriate. You feel his presence throughout the show, from formal portraits to a devastatingly sweet love note on a Polaroid.
All in all, “The Perfect Medium” is not perfect. In trying to do justice to one of the most prolific and significant photographic careers ever, the exhibition overwhelms with its dazzling array of subjects and formats, many of which would benefit from more breathing room and a better critical framework. In a way, this could be a product of Mapplethorpe himself, an artist who honed an immediately recognizable style but used it to explore a wide range of subjects, focused on the aesthetics, rather than the ethics, of what he was doing. Seen in this light, the show is a fitting homage to an artist who packed his shortened life full of as much beauty as he could.