Twelve years ago, somewhat suddenly, Teller sought to purchase Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit (1980). “I’m not a photography collector, I’m not a collector of anything,” he explains. But for some reason he decided he wanted to buy the image; to his amazement, it was available and relatively affordable at the time.
This intuitive—and, at times, uncanny—connection with Mapplethorpe is very palpable in “Teller on Mapplethorpe,” an exhibition of 58 works by the late American photographer selected and organized by Teller. It is, perhaps, the most surprising exploration of Mapplethorpe to date—not easy after a huge double retrospective in Los Angeles earlier this year, a biopic film, and a new publication. One surprise comes as you step into the main gallery and are stunned by a 12-foot-tall image of model and muse Marty Gibson, naked and smiling; he poses powerfully with his arms open, his semi-erect penis neatly mirroring the linear form of his arms. Notably, this is the first time the Mapplethorpe Foundation has allowed an image to be blown up and pasted to the wall like this. But it was an important part of Teller’s mission to make the exhibition more engaging. He wanted to avoid, for instance, the usual approach of framed, mounted pictures lining the walls in rows. “It’s already rigid as fuck,” Teller says, gesturing at a framed photograph. “I’ve seen shows where there’s 40 pictures of this leather and dungeon stuff, and you see five and then you feel you can’t see anymore. It’s overkill. I didn’t want to do that.”
Upstairs, another Teller touch: the eye-wateringly graphic, sphincter-clench-inducing Fist Fuck / Double (1978) faces the softness of a sweet picture of a kitten wedged between the cushions of a white sofa. In the middle, Mapplethorpe’s still life of a devil statue, Italian Devil (1988), seems to grimace in a “sorry, not sorry” sort of way. It’s totally Mapplethorpe, but also Teller.