Artist Robert Mapplethorpe was as controversial as he was celebrated. In 1989, his photographs depicting nude men and sexual fetishes helped ignite the culture wars. Now, an upcoming HBO documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, examines the artist's life and work. He's also the subject of a major retrospective spanning two L.A. museums — the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
With his Hasselblad and Polaroid cameras, Mapplethorpe worked out of his East Village studio. He photographed lovers, friends, models and himself. And like his frenemy Andy Warhol, Mapplethorpe did fashion shoots and made portraits of patrons and socialites.
At the LACMA exhibition, a video clip of Mapplethorpe choreographing a model plays on a loop. It gives a glimpse into his intimate studio sessions and his world; a world that also included downtown luminaries like Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, and, of course, his muse, Patti Smith.
In 1978, Smith and Mapplethorpe made an experimental film, which is also on display at LACMA. So are Mapplethorpe's art school ink drawings, his collages, paper dolls and jewelry he fashioned out of scavenged objects. Mapplethorpe even framed his own underwear.
"That was, I think, from very early on, a part of his aim in art-making — is to generate a certain kind of feeling that was visceral and erotic," says LACMA curator Britt Salvesen.
Though his subject matter was explicit, Mapplethorpe viewed his work as artistic, not pornographic.
"I certainly think that had Robert lived 400 years ago, 500 years before, he would have been a Vatican artist," says Brian English, who was one of Mapplethorpe's studio assistants through the final years as the prolific artist was dying of AIDS.
English says his mentor captured perfect moments of beauty and transcended many boundaries — of gender, sexuality and societal norms.
"He did push culture, and it's important for people to understand him as an artist," says English. "His skills in finding that perfect angle to look at something is like what painters would do. His pictures became ethereal in the way that they would glow."
Even when Mapplethorpe was photographing someone else, English says, his portraits were also self-portraits.
Both LACMA and the Getty shows include an infamous shot of Mapplethorpe with a strategically placed bullwhip. He's bent over and looking back, staring at the viewer.
"He is defiantly saying: I'm a participant here, this is my world and my life and my desire," says Salvesen.
Both shows also include homoerotic and sadomasochistic images that shocked and polarized viewers. In 1989, a few months after he died, the Corcoran Gallery canceled a retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work, titled The Perfect Moment. The show traveled to Cincinnati, where it sparked an obscenity trial. During Congressional hearings that summer about funding for the NEA, then-Senator Jesse Helms declared, "this pornography is sick."
Several years ago, LACMA showed some of these images without incident, and Salvesen says the time is right to show them again.
"I do expect they will have a very strong impact. And I think that's part of what he wanted to do," she says. "I wouldn't want it to become too safe or too comfortable because it was intended to provoke."
By contrast, the Getty Museum has saved Mapplethorpe's most controversial photos for the end of its exhibition. Rather than mount the photos on the walls, curator Paul Martineu chose to display them in a glass case, labeled with an advisory.
"I wanted them to be shown in a more discreet manner," he says. "So they were actually made to be seen in a more intimate way."
The photos from Mapplethorpe's so-called "X portfolio" include a man in rubber sensory deprivation suit, and close-ups of various S&M scenarios and sex acts: men in leather and chains, wearing jock straps or nothing at all.
"These are people that were involved in the sadomasochistic bondage and discipline scene in New York City the 1970s," says Martineau. "He wanted people to understand that he was part of that scene, and that these people were his friends. And that they had great deal of trust between them. That made these pictures possible."
These most challenging and controversial photos are shown in a gallery with Mapplethorpe's iconic floral photos. The exhibition ends with a ghost-like self-portrait Mapplethorpe made as he was dying.
After his death, Mapplethorpe's foundation searched for years to find the right place to store his vast archive. They found it at the Getty Research Institute and its cold storage facility. It will be the permanent home to more than 1,900 photos, letters and other objects that belonged to Mapplethorpe. The collection's value was appraised at $38 million.
Attorney Michael Ward Stout, a board member with The Mapplethorpe Foundation, says the Getty had the best facilities to store the photographer's archive.
"He wanted photography to achieve the level of respect that painting and sculpture had," says Stout.
The Foundation agreed to entrust Mapplethorpe's archive to The Getty and LACMA in 2011. This new retrospective is the culmination of this unprecedented partnership, says LACMA director Michael Govan.
"When I talked to some of my friends in New York, they said: Oh my god, Robert Mapplethorpe is a New York artist, the legacy should be in New York," recalls Govan. "And one of the cases I made about Los Angeles was that Robert Mapplethorpe is already well known in New York. He is a New York artist. That is a global city. But if you look at the future of where artists are moving from all over the world, that LA is one of the up-and-coming art centers."
At a press preview of the exhibition, Edward Mapplethorpe, who was his brother's studio assistant and an artist himself, said he also questioned whether his brother's photos should be stored in Los Angeles.
"Yes, he was a real New Yorker," says Mapplethorpe. "But now that I've met the curators, I've met the archivists, and I've seen the facilities, and understand, it's where he should be. To see them now, exhibited the way they were intended to be exhibited and looked at, and presented in such a nice way is extremely, extremely heartwarming."
And he notes, the archive forever has a home at the Getty, next to the vast photo collection of Mapplethorpe's beloved benefactor and lover, Sam Wagstaff.
The HBO documentary airs April 4, and the photos will be on display at both museums until the end of July.