Leather And Skin
The Art of Robert Mapplethorpe Comes to IU ● by Ethan Sandweiss
The statuesque nudes and the soft flower petals that line the walls of Indiana University’s Grunwald Gallery of Art are unmistakable works of one of the 20th Century’s most influential photographers. Whether viewed as intentionally explicit or uniquely insightful, Robert Mapplethorpe created photographs that demand a reaction. In a joint effort with the Grunwald Gallery, the Kinsey Institute is displaying all 30 of its Mapplethorpe prints for the first time. Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute’s Collection is on display through November 22nd and features some of the most provocative and recognizable work of his career.
[Image at the top of this post: Self Portrait, 1980 © The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Used by permission. Courtesy of The Kinsey Institute.]
There’s little doubt that Mapplethorpe’s gritty, explicit, and beautiful images changed the landscape of American art. Born in Queens to a working class Catholic family, Mapplethorpe was often walking the thin line between conventionality and deviance. A former choirboy, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute following his father’s wishes to become a commercial artist, but dropped out to live as a bohemian in Brooklyn. Like many artists before him, Mapplethorpe explored the world, and himself, through creation. His self-discovery as a homosexual profoundly changed his lifestyle and the nature of his work. The photographs on display at the Grunwald Gallery are some of his most provocative and distinctive.
Though he sometimes described his own photography as “pornographic,” Mapplethorpe avoided the temptation to create art just for the shock value. “I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking,’” he once said, “I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.” Though Mapplethorpe emulated artists such as Warhol and Duchamp, he was always preoccupied with defining his own unique style. The photographer became notorious for his provocative polaroid images of New York’s S&M scene that hid curiosity about passion and the human body behind initially startling sexuality.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s career began in the 1970’s New York City. For the previous decade, art in the city had been dominated by Andy Warhol and the pop art movement; bohemian and gay subcultures which had received marginal attention before were now at the forefront of the evolution of fine art. As a college dropout, Mapplethorpe scraped by working various menial jobs and living with his close friend and lover, Patti Smith. The years before his
art began to proliferate were challenging for him on all levels; he suffered from severe health complications and struggled with his own sense of identity. Financially, Mapplethorpe was destitute, but along with Smith he continued to produce vast quantities of art. Eventually, the two moved into the Chelsea Hotel: the center of New York’s bohemian community.
In 1970, Robert Mapplethorpe bought his first Polaroid camera. Mapplethorpe, who at the time primarily created drawings and collages, began incorporating his own photographs in his work. By 1973 when his first show opened at the Light Gallery, the artist was almost exclusively working with photographs. While Mapplethorpe had begun to work commercially for print and television, his artistic career became increasingly avant garde and provocative. The controversy over his explicit, but masterfully produced, polaroid photographs not only brought attention to him but challenged the very definition of art.
Throughout the 1980’s Mapplethorpe’s work continued to evolve and his reputation continued to grow. He focused increasingly on homoerotic photography featuring statuesque men, often African American, in photographs that were at once classically formal and revolutionary. In addition to his nude photography, Mapplethorpe photographed series of flowers and celebrity portraits which became famous in their own right. Particularly controversial were his images of children, which were often infused with overtly sexual imagery.
Mapplethorpe’s self-destructive lifestyle of casual sex and drug abuse kept him simultaneously alive and on the brink of death. His close friend and writer of his biography, Jack Fritscher, wrote, “If AIDS (didn’t get) him, something else would have.” Mapplethorpe received his diagnosis in 1986 at the height of his artistic career. The AIDS epidemic had begun to devastate the gay community and Mapplethorpe was to become one if its most prominent victims. Despite his diagnosis, Mapplethorpe continued to create, and AIDS research became cause. In 1988, one year before his death, Robert Mapplethorpe started the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, dedicated to promoting photography as a fine art form and later to supporting AIDS research. In March of 1989, Mapplethorpe lost his battle against the disease and died in a Boston hospital.
Months after Mapplethorpe’s death, the photographer made his biggest impact on the world of art. His touring show Perfect Moment arrived at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The exhibition, which featured his signature leather-clad gay men and child photography, drew outrage from conservative locals and eventually a legal suit. Dennis Barrie, director of the arts center, was arrested and put on trial for obscenity charges, facing up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine for the museum. Barrie and the museum were eventually acquitted of all charges in a Cincinnati court. However, even though free expression had won the battle, Perfect Moment provoked a much larger conflict. The show coincided with a tumultuous time in the American art world. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had been sponsoring similarly controversial projects, including one of artist Andres Serrano that included a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, entitled Piss Jesus. (At the height of the controversy, IU brought Serrano to Bloomington as a guest lecturer.) Many Washington lawmakers had been looking for an opportunity to cut funding for the NEA, and Perfect Moment became their excuse. The NEA had provided $30,000 for the show, which Rep. Dick Armey, a Texas Republican and ardent anti-NEA advocate, labeled “morally reprehensible trash.” While congressional attempts to directly cut funding to the NEA were unsuccessful, a congressional committee removed $45,000 from the NEA’s budget (the combined amount spent by the NEA on both the Mapplethorpe and the Serrano show), adding also an anti-obscenity clause that denied funding for projects that featured, among other things, homoeroticism, sadomasochism, and “individuals engaged in sex acts.” Betsy Stirratt of the Grunwald Gallery recalled her own reactions at the time of the controversy. “I was a young artist at the time. I think a lot of us were impacted by the censorship.” Popular protest against the rise of government censorship increased, as did the threat. Clashes continued throughout the 1990’s in response to the legislation and brought to the table not only the question of government involvement in the arts, but the very definition of art itself.
Catherine Johnson-Roehr, Curator of Art, Artifacts, and Photographs at the Kinsey Institute feels passionately that the work of Robert Mapplethorpe has to be preserved and shown. “No one today should be questioning whether or not he’s a real artist,” says Johnson-Roehr, “there’s still arguments being made about what is art, but I think as a culture we’ve evolved.” Catherine Johnson-Roehr remembers that in her first days working at Kinsey, one of the most common questions she was asked was if the institute had any of Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Johnson-Roehr wrote to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and in 2011, it donated 30 original Mapplethorpe prints. The only stipulation made at the time of the donation was that the prints were to be one day shown in an exhibition. Coincidentally, the show will take place 25 years after the arrest of Dennis Barrie in Cincinnati, and will feature some of the same prints that were on display in Perfect Moment. The exhibition at the Grunwald Gallery, a retrospective of some of Mapplethorpe’s best work, promises to be rich with artistic and historical significance. “Not everyone will like it,” says Stirratt, “(but) it’s a very gratifying show.”