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Curator Paul Martineau on Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium

In his role as Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, this is the second time since 2003 Paul Martineau has curated an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989), one of the most influential artists of the later 20th Century. As this is a major retrospective, co-curated with Britt Salvesen of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fabrik Magazine was curious to learn how Martineau went about putting the exhibition together. This interview was conducted in early March before the exhibit opened.

Fabrik: Generally speaking, by which criteria do you decide whether you’re going to exhibit the work of an artist? 

Paul Martineau (PM): I am intrigued by artists who have expanded notions of what is possible in art. I begin all my monographic exhibitions by reviewing the artist’s past exhibition history and catalogues. Then I ask myself, “What does this artist need for me to do for him/her today?” The answer to that question, in Mapplethorpe’s case, was to help the general public to understand who Mapplethorpe was as an artist and a person.

Fabrik: Why did the Getty and LACMA decide to do a Mapplethorpe retrospective at this point in time, other than making use of the gift by the Mapplethorpe Foundation? Was there any political motive behind that?

PM: The acquisition provided us with an excellent opportunity to study Mapplethorpe’s work and life in a way that wasn’t previously possible. Mapplethorpe has not had a major retrospective exhibition in this country since The Perfect Moment in 1988/89. That exhibition was mired in controversy, making the need for a timely reevaluation of his work all the more necessary.

Robert Mapplethorpe American, 1946–1989 Lydia Cheng, 1987 Gelatin silver print Image: 59 x 49.1 cm (23 1/4 x 19 5/16 in.) Promised Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.2012.89.644. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe
American, 1946–1989
Lydia Cheng, 1987
Gelatin silver print
Image: 59 x 49.1 cm (23 1/4 x 19 5/16 in.)
Promised Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to
the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.2012.89.644. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Fabrik: It’s the first time that LACMA and the Getty Museum have made a joint acquisition and are collaborating on such a level. What do you think this may lead to in the future?

PM: The joint acquisition that the Getty made with LACMA in 2011 will serve, I think, as a model for future high profile collaborations.

Fabrik: As the retrospective is a collaboration between LACMA and the Getty, how did you go about deciding who is going to exhibit what? The press release says that the Getty will concentrate on Mapplethorpe’s studio practice, his controversial work and his enduring legacy while LACMA rather highlights the artist’s relationship to New York’s sexual and artistic undergrounds. Were these only practical decisions, based on which foundation gave what to which museum, or was there another idea behind it?

PM: All the editioned prints (more than 1,900 of them) are co-owned by the Getty and LACMA. Britt Salvesen and I spent a day reviewing them and narrowed down the rough cut to about 400 photographs. We were very happy about that until it dawned on us that we would have to divide that pile in two. We realized that we needed a conceptual framework to help us do that work, so we had a brainstorming meeting. We decided to celebrate the dualities in Mapplethorpe’s personality and work – good boy/ bad boy, uptown/downtown, rebel/aesthete, etc. The Getty would cover the artist’s interest in the fine photographic print, art history, the classical body, and his ability to run a studio as a successful business – all Apollonian qualities – while LACMA would focus on the Dionysian. One of my primary goals was to insure that people would want to see both presentations, and I think this framework will do the trick.

Fabrik: During a docent tour in this year’s Photo LA, you mentioned that although Joel-Peter Witkin is an important photographer, known for his often shocking and bizarre subject matters, you would only put three of his photographs in a group show not to overwhelm the viewer and because you wouldn’t want to have a room filled with Witkin’s photographs. In this regard, how did you go about organizing the Mapplethorpe exhibit and what did you keep in mind? 

PM: The photographs are arranged thematically and in loose chronological fashion throughout the exhibition. An important exception is the X Portfolio, which, rather than being in the first gallery in frames on the wall, is displayed (a bit more discreetly) in a case in the final gallery. It is included in a section of the show that addresses the controversy surrounding the 1988/89 exhibition, The Perfect Moment. The X Portfolio is Mapplethorpe’s most challenging work, so I wanted to place it within that historical context. It is my hope that by the time our visitors arrive at the end of the exhibition, they will have developed a greater appreciation for Mapplethorpe as an artist and a man, so they will be in a better position to understand what Mapplethorpe was trying to do with his sex pictures.

Fabrik: What particularly appeals to you about Mapplethorpe? What is your favorite work of his and why?

PM: Mapplethorpe’s work is so highly controlled that there is an inherent tension between order and the underlying threat of chaos in much of it.

Fabrik: One of my favorite photographs is of the body builder Lydia Cheng, from 1985. For this shoot, a make-up artist was brought in to apply various shades of eye make-up to Cheng’s body. No matter what they tried, Mapplethorpe was not satisfied, so he began to blend the colors together on her body. The result was a beautiful bronze color that made her skin shimmer under the lights. Mapplethorpe found a way to turn a failed experiment into a success. 

Fabrik: In the Getty’s In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, you showed some of his mixed-media objects and Polaroid instant prints, which weren’t well known by the public. What kind of surprises are we going to see in this retrospective?

PM: I selected several seascapes that are not well known by the public for inclusion in the exhibition. Mapplethorpe was meticulous about print quality and experimented with a variety of processes. To underscore that idea, I placed a gelatin silver print and a platinum print of the same image (The Coral Sea) side by side, so our visitors can compare them.

The dual Mapplethorpe retrospectives at LACMA and the Getty both close on July 31, 2016. The Getty exhibit will travel to Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Canada, a venue in Asia, and finally to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney Australia.

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Simone Kussatz is a cultural journalist and American Studies Specialist (M.A.). Born and raised in Germany, she studied in the US and Berlin. She’s been a regular contributor to Art Ltd. and ArtScene.

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