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Seeing Double: Robert Mapplethorpe In Sexual Situ

The dual exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum graphically evoke the life work of a prodigious voluptuary. The accompanying collection of Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s lover and benefactor, contextualizes the photographer in the sizzling sexual Zeitgeist of his epoch, the downtown New York art and gay sex scenes of the 1970s and ’80s. The artist had gigantic appetites and pleasured himself with many of those he photographed, engaging them carnally on as well as off camera.

Mapplethorpe was totally out. He made outsider art and had outrageous sex in a time when being out was to be an outlaw.  He used photography as a force, enticing society to confront beauty; utilizing the medium in formalist ways; and often employing dark and pendulous hooded phalli as tropes. “Robert Mapplethorpe led an authentic life at a time when such honesty and transparency was rare. Having a patron or sugar daddy was a shameful thing. Robert had no qualms admitting that Sam Wagstaff’s money was “a part of the package” without which there might not have been a relationship,” said Fenton Bailey, who along with his partner Randy Barbato, produced and directed Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, the just released HBO feature documentary.

Mapplethorpe took photographs at a time when few considered photography a fine art. The things he took photographs of – male nudes and homosexual practices – were considered unworthy of artistic representation. Among the photos of Mapplethorpe featured in the LACMA exhibit is one by Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. The Nordic artist encouraged the young artist from the United States “to free himself from the puritanical standards that still weighted down American culture,” Durk Denner, director of the Tom of Finland Foundation said.  Los Angeles gallerist, Edward Cella, observed, “Mapplethorpe’s portraits of men in leather gear decoded the forbidden. His camera penetrated his subjects with a bold branding of sadomasochism as artistic, evocative, pictorial and sublime.”

A consummate narcissist, Mapplethorpe anticipated today’s all-encompassing self-fascination. He was his own work of art. He shared an obsessive devotion to the perpetuation of personal fame with many brilliant and driven homosexual artists of his day – Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, David LaChapelle – all visual artists we remember in part because of their self aggrandizement.

The incendiary photographs Mapplethorpe produced ignited a cultural war as they scandalized the social order. His flower photos may be pretty, his celebrity portraits evocative, but it is his breakthrough images of male genitalia and homosexual proclivities that changed the art world. The countless obscenity charges and lawsuits brought against universities and museums that exhibited his work speak to Mapplethorpe’s ability to force a sex-phobic society to face up to its prejudices, prejudices that still torment and conflict Western culture today.

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Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute and a member of the Photographic Arts Council. Tarley writes about contemporary art and pop culture and curates photography for the AC Gallery, in Los Angeles. His book, Going Down on Cuba: Notes from an Underground Traveler, is slated for publication by Fabrik Press in 2017.

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