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Portrait of Frank Diaz, seated with leather jacket slung over shoulder

Nick, 1977

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium review – hunting for sex and death

The late photographer’s images, which burn with desire yet remain ice-cold, reveal rough gay sex as both aesthetically conservative and politically radical.

Is there more to say about Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer whose cool images of lilies and leather elicited the hottest of controversies in the Reagan and Bush years? So much more, it turns out. Mapplethorpe is someone we think we know, thanks to the disgusting efforts of Jesse Helms and other conservative culture warriors to censor and shame a gay artist and his supporters. In fact, there are still depths to plumb in his portraits of 80s superstars and little-known figures; still lifes, usually of flowers; and nudes. That last category is the most capacious, for it includes not just images of classicized bodies – often black men, though frequently women as well – but uncensored, flagrant depictions of some rather special sex acts.

The photographer’s bulging archive, which features no fewer than 120,000 negatives, 3,500 Polaroids, and piles of correspondence and ephemera, was acquired in 2011 by an unusual partnership of two museums, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J Paul Getty Museum. They have joined forces, too, for The Perfect Medium, a two-venue show that amounts to one of the largest ever presentations of Mapplethorpe’s art. (Later this year the shows will fuse and tour to Montreal, then Sydney.) Almost everything here – vintage prints, contact sheets, proofs, letters and even Mapplethorpe’s membership card at the leather bar the Mineshaft – comes from the thumping 2011 acquisition. The museums have also collaborated on a major catalogue, while the Getty Research Institute has published a second, revealing book that unearths Mapplethorpe’s notes and juvenilia.

The better show – downright fantastic, in fact – is at LACMA, and has been organized by the museum’s photography chief Britt Salvesen. It’s the scrappier and more diverse of the two, and it opens without compromise. Two shirtless boys dancing, an ephebe in silky gym shorts, the gay icon Peter Berlin on a Fire Island boardwalk: right away, we’re thrust into Mapplethorpe’s unsettling style, in which images burn with sex and yet remain ice-cold. A full wall is given over to men in leather. We see the couple Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, with rawhide and chains in their genteel drawing room, and beside them the rigorous close-up of a man’s leather trousers crowned with a codpiece. In the center is Mapplethorpe himself, the collar on his leather jacket popped high, cigarette dangling. He was his own favorite model, and self portraits recur in these shows as hunting grounds of sex and death.

A subsequent gallery is given over to rarely seen early work, from before he took up a camera: collages, jewelry designs, a few assemblages freighted with images of the Madonna and Catholic guilt. They’re largely tasteless and would be forgettable but for what they entailed. In the early works, such as a 1968 collage featuring two sweet nude boys, we see Mapplethorpe discovering his artistic and sexual individuality at the same time – and often using a surreal visual vocabulary to express that intertwined identity. You feel the same in the early photographs, such as a Polaroid of himself from around 1974, his face half-obscured by a white wall, a leather cuff around his wrist. It hands next to a nearly identical portrait of Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s older, patrician lover. They transformed each other. Another self-portrait features a brutal X Mapplethorpe incised over his own face, around which he wrote in the margins: “Sam – I love you and I need you – hurry home.” Mapplethorpe encouraged Wagstaff, the society gent to his outer-borough boy, to live as an out gay man. Wagstaff gave Mapplethorpe a Hasselblad camera to replace his Polaroid – the first step toward his mature, severe photographic language.

By the late 1970s, having mastered his cool and high-contrast style via portraits of friends such as Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe began shooting men (and a very few women) in the New York leather scene, engaged in sex acts usually kept in the dark. Several of them, thanks to the massive controversy they elicited, have become legendary – though seeing them in the gallery offers the chance to see how Mapplethorpe took care in highlighting the striations of a white jockstrap, the sheen of a black leather hood. Other photographs from the archive may be less familiar, such as an implausibly beautiful photograph of a bearded man with his tongue stuck halfway up another man’s rectum.

Yet even in his most explicit pictures, Mapplethorpe never presented sex as an escape or an indulgence. The lighting is always cold, the framing scrupulous; the Hasselblad’s square format, too, encouraged symmetry and exactitude in a way the Polaroids did not. The individual sex acts are not really the point. Rather, Mapplethorpe was sexing up of the language of photography itself, by routing sex through the classical ideal. (All of which makes the leather-clad Mapplethorpe feel subversively camp: there is something Wildean in his studied contemplation of erections and orifices, the recourse to Vitruvius and Schiller in the darkroom.)

The great virtue of the LACMA show is its understanding of Mapplethorpe’s images of sex – specifically, gay sex; specifically, rough gay sex – as both aesthetically conservative and politically radical. “I want to see how close I can come to real pornography,” Mapplethorpe told an interviewer in 1983. “In other words, can somebody jack off to a photograph that, in fact, is better than pornography?” That was Mapplethorpe’s project: to compose images of leathermen and nudes with the same traditionalism and exactitude given to still life or portraiture, without dissolving the risk and antagonism that America still assigned to gay sex. (The coming Aids epidemic would multiply this contradiction a hundredfold.) The rigor and the stillness of the most explicit images are bound – a word the boys at the Mineshaft would appreciate – to a confrontational and unapologetic political stance, which made a virtue of not just homosexuality but promiscuity. The pictures are still. The acts are in your face.

The Getty’s half of the show, curated by Paul Martineau, is more decorous and restrained in its presentation, though it does not shy away from the most explicit images either. It’s here you’ll find Mapplethorpe’s X portfolio, a privately published collection of sadomasochistic images, presented in their original cloth-covered case. (The Getty is also presenting a few archival materials from Mapplethorpe’s posthumous, controversy-struck retrospective The Perfect Moment. A 1989 presentation of his work at Washington’s now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art was cancelled; when the show toured the next year to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, the director ended up on trial for obscenity, and was acquitted.)

The Getty show also dives deep into Mapplethorpe’s photographs of the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, the most photographed of all, who elicited some of his greatest and most diverse images. Nude or in an evening gown, grandly feminine or pointedly androgynous, Lyon was Mapplethorpe’s ideal foil: she keeps morphing and grows stronger as she changes. Both shows, too, look closely at Mapplethorpe’s flowers. An orchid, presented in a wildly detailed black-and-white image at the Getty, recurs at LACMA in garish 80s color.

The Getty, more than LACMA, also pays close attention to Mapplethorpe’s images of nude black men. Many venerate the black body through classical motifs, as in four nudes of the model Ajitto, balled up and grasping his knees in imitation of Hippolyte Flandrin’s 1836 nude by the sea. Others play unashamedly on white gay male stereotypes, most notoriously his Man in Polyester Suit, in which the black model’s very impressive penis snakes out of his fly, his member impeccably offset by a white shirttail. With the exception of Mapplethorpe’s images of nude children (which both museums have shied away from, I note), these pictures of African Americans have overtaken the sadomasochistic photographs as his most controversial. Whole books have been written on them, and the fairness or unfairness of these images is well beyond the scope of a newspaper review. At the Getty, Martineau has chosen to stage many of Mapplethorpe’s images of black men in the same gallery as the Lisa Lyon photographs, under the rubric Studio Practice. But the studio, as the X portfolio proves, is no hiding places from the destabilizing power of sex and politics.

Very few photographs appear in both the LACMA and Getty exhibitions. The curators have mapped two different routes through Mapplethorpe’s capacious archive. One that does, and one that could stand for the whole of this monster retrospective, is a self-portrait from 1978: the last image in the X portfolio, later reprinted as a standalone image. Mapplethorpe has placed his left foot on a box draped with a white cloth; he wears boots, a leather vest and chaps with nothing beneath them. He is bent at the waist, and he cranes his neck back to gaze back at the lens; his right eye is locked on the camera. And in his right hand he holds a bullwhip, whose business end snakes on the floor of his studio, and whose grip he has inserted in his exposed, dilated anus.

Forty years on it is still a bold image, but it is as confident and knowing as Dürer’s self-portrait as Jesus Christ. Mapplethorpe’s extraordinary poise, in a self-portrait that makes a virtue of anal penetration, marks him as more than just a classicist with a dirty streak. That eye trained on the camera lens, that august bearing as he reams his hole: it makes the fleshiest of images into something much finer than sex, and turns an act that too many men still find humiliating into his letter of nobility. He is not fucking himself. He is saying, with his face and his ass at once: this is who I am.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is at LACMA and the J Paul Getty Museum from 20 March to 31 July.