Juergen Teller’s Surprising Take on Robert Mapplethorpe
On Sunday evening, Juergen Teller was watching Planet Earth II on TV with his son, and the London-based photographer found himself unusually affected by it. Snakes slithering through the sand to eat eggs and a female leopard being “raped by a male leopard” suddenly left him quivering. “My son said to me, ‘Dad, you’re so easily scared! Don’t be such a wimp,’ ” Teller recalls as he sits opposite me, smoking a cigarette, still visibly shaken by the experience. This particular sensitivity to the cruelty of nature he attributes to his profound involvement over the past year with the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, after Alison Jacques, a longtime dealer of Mapplethorpe’s work in London, invited him to curate an exhibition for her gallery on Berners Street. The resulting show, “Teller on Mapplethorpe,” opens today.
“I started to dream about it; his work is very intense,” Teller explains. “I was sleeping and dreaming about these heart-shaped dolphin penises coming towards me—I had to go downstairs in the middle of the night and drink a glass of water and smoke a cigarette.” It’s not the reaction you might expect from the powerhouse German photographer, whose works are equally lauded in galleries, museums, and ad campaigns for major fashion brands like Marc Jacobs.
Teller first came across Mapplethorpe’s work through the iconic image of Patti Smith on her Horses album cover. “I was maybe 16 or something, when I used to listen intensively to Patti Smith records,” Teller remembers. “I had the record cover, and I was really intrigued by it. First of all, by how fantastic Patti Smith looks—what a great style she has and how mysterious she is—and even more than this, I thought that this wasn’t just any photographer taking her picture. I felt like this was someone who was really intimate with her and that there was a whole universe there.” Years after this initial encounter, Teller would come across Mapplethorpe’s work again. “His boldness, his directness, his intensity—it really spoke to me,” he says.
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.
Some of the parallels between the two photographers are obvious to those familiar with their work. There are, for instance, assholes, including a rare photograph of Marty Gibson face down in an inflatable dingy (Juergen prefers to photograph his own asshole). There’s a heart-wrenching portrait of Lisa Marie, shot by Mapplethorpe in 1987, who Teller photographed in 2000 for a Marc Jacobs campaign. There are photographs of children—including Untitled, Boy (1973), which resonates with Teller’s photographs of his son Ed. Other parallels are more personal, such as the appearance of an unusual picture of a man standing on a stack of plates. Teller—which is the German word for “plate”—began to work with the plate pun a year ago in his own work with a new series titled “Plates/Teller,” which was included in his recent exhibition “Enjoy Your Life!” in Bonn. When he visited the foundation in New York to go through Mapplethorpe’s archives, he found image. “Suddenly I found these fucking plates he was working with!” Teller says. “Probably no one else would have chosen that picture.”
Another personal inclusion is Cock and Devil (1982)—the second Mapplethorpe work Teller purchased. “At the time, I thought, Why the fuck am I buying this?” Teller recalls. “But it says everything about him and his desire, his sexuality, the danger, the horrificness of AIDS. It’s so simple, it’s so brutal.”
It’s not only Teller’s selection that is unique, but also the way he arranges the photographs, showing a new kind of engagement with Mapplethorpe, a visceral connection to the work that lends it new energy. Teller has clearly had fun with the juxtapositions and contradictions that can be made with Mapplethorpe’s pantheon of subjects—fruits, flowers, children, animals, portraits of men and women, body parts, erections, semi-erections. “I wanted to show the tenderness, the sensitivity of his work,” he explains.
Teller imagined the show as a representation of a typical day in Mapplethorpe’s life. This could have entailed “photographing a flower in a vase at 11 a.m. when the light was right, then an appointment with a celebrity to shoot a portrait, and in the evening he went out to these sex clubs and he took some pictures there,” Teller says. “I wanted to show his interests in life, to have all of it in there and mix it together in an interesting way.”
In Teller’s vision of Mapplethorpe, penises butt up against horses, a pair of coconuts nestled coquettishly under a sheet of fabric sit suggestively next to a headshot of Madeleine Stowe, cropped to just under her collarbone. Teller also selected some extremely rare Polaroids, including a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe from 1973, taken in a swimming pool. He has hung it next to a color Polaroid of Sam Wagstaff on one side and a topless Patti Smith on the other. The juxtaposition, again, is flawless. Teller’s exhibition brings out moments of hilarity (a sense of humor that’s not often emphasized in the work), tenderness, and brutality—the beating heart of Mapplethorpe. “He was so clear in what he wanted to do, he took risks and went for it. He didn’t compromise, and that was inspiring for me,” Teller says.
I ask Teller what the show says about himself, and if he’s concerned about comparisons with Mapplethorpe. “Hopefully, people will come out of it and think that I’m not stupid,” he says with a laugh, “and that I know how to make a show.”