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Phillip Prioleau facing away from camera opening white curtains.

Phillip Prioleau, 1982

Robert Mapplethorpe: from shock to awe

Was the photographer a provocateur or pioneer? The Guggenheim lays bare how he could be both.

Robert Mapplethorpe was a consummate formalist, driven by his will to beauty. His lens roved across muscled limbs, taut skin, leather, hair, fabric, flowers and phalluses, conferring a classical glow on them all. An elegant and profound retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum celebrates Mapplethorpe’s fierce pursuit of perfection and hunger for control.

He did not cling to some blithe fantasy, though. We see him impose a healing vision on the men who sat before his camera, shortly before Aids swept so many of them away. As the show’s title, Implicit Tensions, implies, he used beauty as a provocation, challenging viewers not to avert their gaze from troubling topics such as sex, frailty, exploitation and race.

Mapplethorpe strove for flawlessness and at the same time sought out decay, especially in his tragic portraits of flowers. A rose unfurls its petals in a plume of toxic smoke, its moment of magnificence belied by creeping death. A calla lily droops like a diva in Act IV, a scrawny shadow the sign of its fate. An orchid has started down the path to putrefaction, its papery wings already brittle and translucent.

In 1978 he produced two portfolios — “X”, featuring explicit images of the S&M scene, and “Y”, a series of luscious blooms. Together, they play up the formal connection between flora and genitalia. In the 1983 portrait “Dennis Speight”, a nude man grips a bouquet of calla lilies as if they had just burst from his crotch.

Where Georgia O’Keeffe looked at voluptuous orchids and saw vulvas, Mapplethorpe beheld the same plants and found tumescent bulges. Flowers are equal opportunity sex symbols.

“X” and “Y” demonstrated Mapplethorpe’s philosophy that style transcended subject. “My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing a cock. Basically, it’s the same thing . . . It’s the same vision,” he said. That meticulous, apparently cool aesthetic produced a trio of images using similar compositional techniques: “Cock”, a shadowed member cantilevered out against a field of white; “Lowell Smith”, a black man’s hands holding a white cardboard panel; and “Tulips”, in which one suicidal flower threatens to pull the whole crowded vase off the edge of a shiny black table. In all three pictures, contrasting tones of light and dark divide up the square-format frame into sparse, clean geometries.

“My interest was to open people’s eyes, get them to realise anything can be acceptable. It’s not what it is, it’s the way it’s photographed,” he said.

But Mapplethorpe was being disingenuous in asking viewers to look past subject matter to the immaculate play of shadows and curves. He didn’t even do that himself. Rather, he calibrated the degree of shock. Over time, Mapplethorpe refined his technique into a mix of photography, sculpture and theatre. He had chiselled young men strike Michelangelo poses, lit them with heavenly beams, and bedecked them with chains, ropes, cuffs and weights — the attributes of martyrs. Pain and grace formed a partnership of style. The result was work of such dazzling clarity that, although he was ferociously criticised, it would be wrong to say he was misunderstood.

Much of the energy in Mapplethorpe’s photographs springs from the friction between urbanity and raunch. In the double portrait “Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter”, two men in cap-to-boot leather outfits pose in a living room that must have been decorated by somebody’s grandma. Tchotchkes adhere to every surface, an oriental rug swaths the floor, and a wingback armchair encases Ridley, who wears a dog collar and shackles on his ankles and wrists. Heeter, leaning casually against the chair, holds the chain. There’s plenty of wit in the disconnect between the strait-laced suburban setting, the subjects’ sombre expressions, and their sexualised garb.

Those ironic juxtapositions recall Diane Arbus’s portraits of extraordinary people in ordinary households, like “Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents”. (Arbus, too, used a medium format camera with square negatives.)

Mapplethorpe and his defenders argued fervently that his technical sophistication and rarefied eye trumped the in-your-face subject matter, but viewers at the height of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s often didn’t agree. They saw S&M sex scenes, not elegant geometries. In 1990, prosecutors indicted the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, along with its director, on obscenity charges for exhibiting homoerotic photographs. Conservative politicians, led by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, excoriated the show on moral grounds. The museum won that case, but Mapplethorpe’s name became a byword for the art world’s self-indulgent excesses. The attack peaked two years later, when Congress slashed the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Guggenheim, to its credit, acknowledges the many-splendored rage that Mapplethorpe’s work has always stoked. A different brand of anger focused on “Man in a Polyester Suit,” since we know his race not by his face (which is cropped out) but by his hands — that, and the penis lolling through an open fly.

Taken at a time before teenager sexting and mortifyingly regular bulletins from the annals of exposure and harassment, the picture purports to show a rare and surprising sight.

“Critics have argued that the image reinforces vulgar stereotypes about black masculinity,” the text panel points out. “Strikingly disassociated from the sitter, the phallus is presented as an object suitable for fascination and projection.” All true, and all exquisitely calculated to make viewers swoon and sputter, maybe even think.

The artist, who died in 1989, didn’t live to see his notoriety crest, but he would surely have been pleased at the wild attention, which caused the price of his photographs to soar. When it came to money, Mapplethorpe was no purist. He emulated Andy Warhol’s two-pronged quest for artistic respectability and commercial success. In a 1986 portrait, he exalted his idol as a secular icon, complete with radiant halo. Warhol, the patron saint of celebrity, surrounded himself with beautiful people; Mapplethorpe had similarly exacting standards. He trained his lens on unconventional behaviour but not on imperfect bodies. His subjects ached and strained, but they were rarely wrinkly and never fat. That stuff wouldn’t sell.

His marketing strategy was sophisticated, appealing to buyers at various degrees of daringness. In 1977, he received two simultaneous exhibitions of his work. The first, at Holly Solomon’s commercial gallery, contained mostly portraits, candidly appealing to wealthy buyers and potential patrons. The other, at the famously experimental non-profit venue the Kitchen, was a more outré affair, brimming with sexually explicit images.

He created separate invitations for each event. Both contain the artist’s disembodied handwriting the word “Pictures”, on a square piece of paper. In the gallery version, the hand emerges from a pinstriped sleeve and sports an expensive watch. The Kitchen variant wears a fingerless black leather glove and a wrist cuff. Mapplethorpe always did know how to segment the market, dividing his output into X-rated close-ups for one constituency and still lives for the uptown crowd.

“Well, it looks like art,” his contemporary Peter Hujar sneered at the tamer version — “the kind of thing that would look nice in a living room.”

Today, 30 years after his death, Mapplethorpe eludes such simple dismissals and formalist hosannas. The Guggenheim reveals him to be a paradoxical pioneer, demanding to set his own rules and master old ones at the same time, to shock and be adored, to come off as simultaneously cool and hot, to sell sublimity and lust. Fortunately, he had the talent to earn his contradictions.