A Very Marcel Duchamp Sort of Way

“Oh, Robert was an artist. I mean, a lot of these things don’t matter with somebody like Robert, because he was a true artist. Some things magnify people or open up areas, but Robert always knew he was an artist. He wasn’t intimidated by technology or the lack of it. He was just more frustrated. He was very frustrated when we were young, because he was a visionary in a very Marcel Duchamp sort of way. He envisioned whole rooms, big installations, things he couldn’t realize because he didn’t have any money. It wasn’t that he had to be introduced to anything. Robert knew about photography. He had taken pictures before, with a 35 mm. But he wasn’t so interested in the darkroom process. He liked the Polaroid because it was fast. Then he was seduced by photography in general—but, again, because of its speed. He could access sculpture through photography. He loved sculpture.” [Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe]

“… to focus exclusively on the formal aspects of Mapplethorpe’s nudes would be like reading Playboy for the articles. To be fair, Mapplethorpe took great pains to get the contrast and balance of his work just right—he and his printer Tom Baril would sometimes spend days developing a single portrait. Even so, the images that resulted were plainly intended to shock gallery-goers with their content, bringing into the public sphere what otherwise happens behind closed doors. Some of the images still have this effect, but many others simply don’t pack the punch that they did 30 or 40 years ago. This puts the contemporary critic in a strange position. The tension between white-hot eroticism and cold perfection was central to the power of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, but today, coldness prevails. (His photographs of flowers, paired with nudes, were initially praised for their visceral, almost pornographic qualities; these days, the nudes seem like still lifes.)
It’s a mark of Mapplethorpe’s strengths and his limitations that you can’t really understand his work without knowing the context in which he worked. The 1980s was an era of frenzied homophobia disguised by the pompous term “Culture Wars”: On the floor of the Senate, Jesse Helms lambasted the National Endowment for the Arts for awarding grants to Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, of Piss Christ (1987) fame. In July 1989, four months after Mapplethorpe’s death, Helms sponsored a bill forbidding the NEA from funding any further work that featured—among many other things—homoeroticism, S&M, and “individuals engaged in sex acts.” It passed. [Jackson Arn on Robert Mapplethorpe]

“… elegance of this sort can be simply nostalgic or conservative, harking back to an arcadia of a more mannered and moneyed time—the usual boring voyeuristic yearning for class and privilege that has now become an industry. What differentiates Mapplethorpe’s work most forcefully from the smart sycophancy implicit in the notion of a “society” photographer is his pictures’ mirror world of intense, outlaw sexuality, one that partakes of the formal qualities of his portraits and flower photographs while rejecting the social context they imply. This too is a form of nostalgia, but one that yearns for ideals of the human body, of physical rather than social form. (It’s appropriate that the photograph on the cover of the show’s catalogue is Apollo, 1988, a closeup of a delicate marble statue of the Classical embodiment of male beauty.) As in Diane Arbus’ work, there is a sense of the photographer projecting his fantasies onto the world. Sometimes the unabashed fascination with physical beauty evidenced in his pictures, whether of black men, women body-builders, or a calla lily, can seem almost laughable in its intensity. But Mapplethorpe presents his subjects with such seriousness and virtuosic formal command that his work compels attention and respect.” [Charles Hagen on Robert Mapplethorpe]

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