It’s hard for museums to predict exactly when and where public controversy will strike.
But in deciding to exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, Z portfolios, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was well aware that the X series contains some of the most controversial images in the history of American photography.
These carefully composed shots of S&M; role-playing or hard-core sex acts among gay New York men became a flash point in the culture wars of the early 1990s, leading to the indictment of a Cincinnati museum director on obscenity charges and triggering larger debates about the proper role of the National Endowment for the Arts. They have rarely been shown in the U.S. since.
Twenty-two years later, how does a publicly funded museum approach exhibiting the historically loaded material? And will viewers today, who have easy access to shocking images on the Internet, even care?
These are the questions that curators and educators at LACMA are facing as they prepare to open their Mapplethorpe show on Sunday.
“We have enough 21st century examples of images inciting controversy or even violence — whether David Wojnarowicz at the Smithsonian or the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video on YouTube — to still justify being careful,” said LACMA photography head Britt Salvesen.
“I think the work is likely to trigger a whole range of reactions,” she added. “What I hope is that we can have a productive conversation, public or private, about the choice of works, the presentation, the artist, his moment and ours.”
The exhibition marks LACMA’s first show drawn from its 2011 joint acquisition with the Getty of art and archival material (including some 2,000 photographs and 120,000 negatives) from the Mapplethorpe Foundation, which the artist established in 1988, the year before his AIDS-related death.
The Getty’s first show, which opens Tuesday, draws together 23 images from different times in his career. The two institutions are also working together on an ambitious, two-site retrospective to occur in 2016.
But Salvesen at LACMA said she knew from the start that she wanted to show the X, Y, Z portfolios — which consist of the sex pictures, sensual flowers and nude images of African American men, respectively.
“I felt it was important because it was the artist’s own statement about his themes and how he shaped his visual aesthetic. He had such a short career, but he put these portfolios together himself,” she said. (The first two portfolios were published in 1978, the last in 1981; each consists of a box containing 13 silver gelatin, black-and-white prints measuring roughly 7.5 by 7.5 inches.)
For the X portfolio, he chose shots that he had staged in his studio based on his experience with the S&M; scene in New York in the 1970s.
The LACMA education department has prepared a short fact sheet for security guards, who are encouraged to provide visitors with comment cards. They have prepared a fuller fact sheet for museum guides (wearing red “Ask Me” T-shirts), who are encouraged to talk to visitors. Education head Jane Burrell said fact sheets were first used in 2008 for the opening of BCAM because of Damien Hirst’s pickled lamb and splayed butterflies.
“The fact sheets include quotes from Mapplethorpe,” she said. “So we know he’s not trying to do this for sensational effect but trying to capture a particular moment and place — the emergence of the gay movement and his world of S&M; in New York City.”
Salvesen has also used historic quotes to set the stage for the show. Along with placing a warning on one wall, noting the show “may not be suitable for all audiences,” she has juxtaposed two quotes from the 1990 Cincinnati trial at the gallery entrance.
“Where do you draw the line? Are these the kinds of pictures that should be permitted in a museum?” asked prosecutor Frank Prouty.
"[Mapplethorpe’s work] is an art that challenges existing norms, but we are used to that in the history of art,” said Martin Friedman, then-director of the Walker Art Center and a witness for the defense.
Inside the gallery, Salvesen hung most of the pictures not in direct view of the entrance but on a wall off to the right. The images from each portfolio are arranged in a row, the rows close enough together to create a grid-like formation. Salvesen said she got the idea from an interview with the artist in which he discussed his desire to see the three portfolios “all in one mass.”
This way, it’s easy to see similarities between, say, the bulging flowers and sculptural nudes. And this way the museum is able to place the sex pictures on the top row, starting just above 6 feet, which makes them hard for children to see.
When presenting this material as part of a larger touring show called “The Perfect Moment,” the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1990 had warning labels as well, and photographs were placed outside of easy view inside a vitrine. But that didn’t prevent a political firestorm.
Sens. Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato had already attacked Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” (showing a crucifix in a glass of urine) as “blasphemy” and blasted the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting the work through an award.
After “The Perfect Moment” opened at its first venue in Philadelphia at the end of 1988, with $30,000 in funding from the NEA, it became another lightning rod, prompting proposals (and ultimately legislation) to restrict NEA funding.
Shortly before it reached the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, that museum’s director got cold feet about losing government funds and canceled the show. Mapplethorpe supporters quickly lined up another venue in D.C., the Washington Project for the Arts.
This gave the Hamilton County sheriff’s department in Ohio several months to prepare its raid. They turned up at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center on opening day, handed an indictment to museum Director Dennis Barrie and shut down the show so they could videotape all the photographs.
Prosecutors later presented those tapes in court, while the defense called art experts who analyzed the work’s artistry. The jury acquitted Barrie and the museum of the charges.
Since then, the X portfolio has been shown extensively in Europe but only once by a U.S. museum: a two-week exhibition in 1990 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art organized by the Mapplethorpe Foundation to coincide with the debut of the Showtime movie “Dirty Pictures,” starring James Woods as Barrie.
Carole Ann Klonarides, then a curator at the Santa Monica museum, remembers one trustee being especially skittish about taking the show, saying, “‘Do you want a repeat of what happened in Cincinnati?’”
She said they consulted a constitutional lawyer, who also cautioned that they were taking “a big risk.”
But they made sure the show’s educational mission — as a restaging of a historic exhibition — was clear, and that public reaction was largely positive, Klonarides said. “I felt most people applauded us for showing the work, and the lines were tremendous. I think by then the times had begun to change.”
LACMA Director Michael Govan believes times have changed even more and did not consult a lawyer at all.
"[S]ince the Cincinnati trial, I don’t think there’s been another outburst about these images globally,” he said. “The culture has changed; our world has changed.”
Plus, Govan added, since 1990 Mapplethorpe has been fully “absorbed into the classic canon of photography.”
As for museum politics, or the politicians with a stake in the museum, Govan did write a letter to the County Board of Supervisors to inform them of the show. But he said that sort of letter is standard practice, and they raised no concerns.
And what about LACMA’s Board of Trustees? “They had no issues with this,” Govan said. “We have a lot of trustees who collect Mapplethorpe.”