LOS ANGELES — In a midcareer self-portrait, Robert Mapplethorpe depicted himself as a devil, with a bullwhip for a tail. But he ended up on the side of the angels. In 1989, a traveling survey of his work, with pictures of extreme homosexual acts, pushed the American culture wars into high gear. Religious groups raged. An indignant Congress cut federal money to artists. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, set to host the show, dropped it like a shot.
Mapplethorpe knew nothing of any of this. He was three months dead of AIDS at 42. Yet he was present by proxy. After the show’s cancellation, anti-censorship demonstrators gathered outside the Corcoran and projected his images on its facade, including another self-portrait, this one of a leather-clad punk with a pompadour and a disdainful snarl. The crowd viewed the images in mournful silence. A new Mapplethorpe, Saint Robert, was born.
A quarter-century later, canonization is complete. In Los Angeles, a doubleheader retrospective, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” is on view at both the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A documentary film, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” will have its debut Monday on HBO. Rumor has it that a biopic is in the works. An artist once reviled as a pariah and embraced as a martyr has been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream. He’s now a classic, with auction prices to match. The question is, how does the work, cleaned of the grit of controversy, hold up?
Mapplethorpe had his own ideas of what makes art valuable. One was its role as witness. “Art is an accurate statement of the time in which it is made,” he said. And the Los Angeles survey is most persuasive when seen in that light, not as a “masterpiece” show — it runs into trouble there for me — but as a record of a radical personal and cultural history that retains some hint of what once made it provocative.
Born in 1946, in Floral Park, Queens, Mapplethorpe grew up a white, middle-class Roman Catholic kid in the conservative, homophobic, racially divided America of the 1950s. And the 1960s, with its protests and liberations, remade him. He went to art school to study advertising, but switched to painting and sculpture. He took drugs, dressed weird, and in 1969, dropped out to live in bohemian poverty with a girlfriend, the future poet and performer Patti Smith. (Her award-winning 2010 memoir, “Just Kids,” is about their time together in New York.) A year later he took up with a man and clarified the erotic direction of his life.
Eroticism, specifically homoeroticism, was at the center of that life. You can see it dawning and coalescing in work from the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of it unfamiliar, drawn from the artist’s archives, jointly acquired in 2011 by the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also known as Lacma. A series of circa-1970 collages in the Lacma installation that combine geometric abstraction with clips from gay skin magazines are early evidence that Mapplethorpe found modernist aesthetics and pornography completely compatible. Art was a turn-on in every sense.
For an artist with ambitions for big-time success in a still-closeted art world, this was an unusual direction to take, and Mapplethorpe took it even further. In 1971, he adopted photography as his primary medium, a decision that coincided with his immersion in a subculture of sadomasochistic gay sex. That culture in the early 1970s became, for a while, a focus of his art, in images of homoerotic bondage and discipline, fetishism and anatomical penetration. (In his bullwhip-tail self-portrait, the whip handle is inserted in his rectum.) He published those pictures in 1978 as the “X Portfolio” — it’s on display at the Getty — and they are by far his most subversive work.
No other artist was doing anything like them, at least not publicly. With their combination of startling content and formal care — balanced compositions, sculptural lighting — they took photography across a political line that was very much part of that post-lib, pre-AIDS 1970s moment of gay baths, leather bars and straight swinger clubs, a line that more market-favored media like painting and sculpture had barely touched.
Around the time he was starting this series, Mapplethorpe’s fortunes changed. In 1972, he met the curator and soon-to-be photography collector Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., who became his lover, supporter and promoter. Wagstaff gave him a studio, an expensive camera and uptown social connections, and encouraged him to professionalize his practice.
Mapplethorpe hired expert printers. He perfected the deluxe tonal style — soft white-grays, velvety darks — that became his brand. He balanced his portfolio. Portraits of high-paying clientele were his bread and butter now, along with stylized floral still lifes, which people found sexy but safe, and beautiful. A collaboration with the bodybuilder and performance artist Lisa Lyon added an assertive female component to his male-dominant art, and was in line with then-popular notions of female empowerment. (“Wonder Woman” grabbed attention on TV.)
Some memorable images emerged from all of this, but too many let style do the work of content. They pull you in but leave your eyes sliding off the surface. The sight of Ms. Lyon pumping iron is formidable and startling. But too many of her enactments of female “types” seem to be less about agency than about parody.
The most interesting 1980s work is a series of studio shots of black men, published under the title “Black Book” in 1986. Like the early sex pictures, they are the product of erotic fixation, Mapplethorpe’s late-blooming attraction to muscular black males. And as a group, they generate a concentrated heat, but they also raise questions about the exoticizing of racial blackness. The best-known image, “Man in a Polyester Suit,” encapsulates the problem: It’s a close-up of a black penis emerging from an unzipped fly. No face, no name, no person, just an anatomical fragment that translates into race=sex.
On the whole, Mapplethorpe’s “Black Book” images, some of them portraits, don’t feel cynical or opportunistic. He had intimate and continuing personal relationships with several of his models, as he did with men in the sex pictures. But his view of them is stuck in a time warp. It’s little different from the alternately classicizing and primitivizing take on the black figure in photographs by the Boston artist F. Holland Day at the end of the 19th century.
And how does that view of the black body — a body nude, invasively scrutinized, sexualized, pacified, directed to sit, stand, be silent — come across in the present, when some of the most visible black bodies are dead ones? In the America of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in the Los Angeles of Rodney King, Mapplethorpe’s “Black Book” cannot, like so much of the rest of his art, be mainstreamed, seen coolly through an aesthetics-only lens.
Nor can the “X Portfolio” be received neutrally; its contents, too, for somewhat different reasons, are hot. They probably don’t shock as they may once have. Time has seen to that. The Getty posts cautionary signs near its display of “X Portfolio” prints, but there’s nothing depicted in them that can’t be easily found, accessible to all, on the Internet. Some of the potentially most offensive scenes turn up, uncensored, in the mild-mannered HBO film.
Yet there are still places — this newspaper is among them — where these pictures are still considered too transgressive for reproduction. Mapplethorpe is one of the most popular photographers of the second half of the 20th century. His stylistic influence is widespread, particularly on advertising, a field he returned to late in his career. He made news when a print of “Man in a Polyester Suit” sold for close to a half-million dollars at Sotheby’s last year. But in many outlets, reports of the sale were published without a photo.
This refusal to show his art — this exercise of discretion, let’s call it — points to the most interesting thing about it, and about him: It reasserts his status as a radical. This is a crucial status for a gay artist to maintain at a time when “gay” is being domesticated and normalized, its potential for political resistance smoothed away.
At one time, early on, in an entirely unsaintly way — “I’m not attempting to make a social statement,” he once said — he challenged the sexual mores of his time, and ideas of what art could and could not be. Much of his subsequent work will keep him popular: the flowers, the portraits, the beautiful bodies. But the pictures that kept him out of the Corcoran are the ones that will keep him in history.