mapplethorpe gets the documentary he deserves

A first look at the new HBO documentary from its premiere at Sundance.

by i-D Staff and Colin Crummy
24 January 2016, 4:50am

When Senator Jesse Helms took up a crusade to ban the work of photographer and, as he put it 'known homosexual' Robert Mapplethorpe, he simply asked the American public to do one thing: 'Look at the pictures.' Actually what he meant was don't, else you be horrified by Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit, blunt photography like the infamous Man in Polyester Suit, a 1980 body shot of Mapplethorpe's African American lover Milton Moore, his cheap three-piece suit unzipped, big cock casually hanging out.

To the contemporary observer, a shot of an unzipped dick is no big deal, very much the everyday trade of Snapchat, Grindr and business-as-play porn. But 25 years ago, Mapplethorpe's homoerotic, much acclaimed work exposed a cultural gulf between liberal and conservative America and ignited a censorship battle that continues today. Back then, Senator Helms' denouncement led a Washington gallery to cancel its Mapplethorpe show and a Cincinnati art gallery went to court on obscenity charges, which it (and its director) were ultimately found not guilty of.

If the new HBO documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, which premiered at Sundance yesterday, takes its title from those cultural wars, it quite quickly leaves all to one side to do exactly what Senator Helms asked but did not intend. This first film about Mapplethorpe since his death in 1989 asks us to do that one thing: just look at the pictures. The filmmakers were granted access by The Mapplethorpe Foundation to his work and secured the co-operation of the Getty Museum and LACMA in L.A, which were planning a long overdue twin retrospective of the photographer's work, due to open in mid March.

In the five vaults were some 120,000 images. The film gives much of its time to consider the work, blown up to big screen proportions as various collaborations, lovers, friends and business associates tell the Mapplethorpe story. For anyone with a passing interest, seeing so much of the work so large it is an extraordinary scene and not just because Mapplethorpe was a fan of a well proportioned cock. From fist fucking to flower portraiture, nudes to celebrity shots, Mapplethorpe's art retains a power to captivate. It is simple and direct in its stylised elegance, whether in capturing Debbie Harry in her heyday or cock and ball torture.

It's easy to be flippant about the sexual content of Mapplethorpe's work and though the film does not shy away from that more infamous, inflammatory side of the art at all, it is also at pains to showcase the other side to the photographer's career. There was a duality at play. From early on he developed a career as portrait artist for hire that appealed to the uptown crowd while simultaneously meeting men at The Mine Shaft sex club downtown and taking them back to his for sex and, inevitably, sexually explicit portraiture from piss art to rubber play. In either scene, he was always direct, his black and white style shot through with a rare symmetry.

The film playfully and with some skill teases out that duality in Mapplethorpe's life from his upbringing in Catholic suburban America (his sister Nancy calls him 'devilish', his local teacher talks about him in angelic terms) through to art school (where to stand out he bought a pet monkey prone to masturbating), the Chelsea Hotel years with lover and collaborator Patti Smith and into the mainstay of his career in 1980s Manhattan.

Mapplethorpe's genius is celebrated in the art but his life is given due shade. He was ambitious to a fault and contributors candidly detail the kind of personality needed to make a much of a scene as he did. Mapplethorpe himself discusses how he formed relationships and took lovers like older curator Sam Wagstaff in part because of the financial security and connections he could give (he bought Mapplethorpe his Bond Street loft, from which much of his best known work was produced). Mapplethorpe was strategic at a time when all of that was unseemly, and it was not always an attractive personality trait. One of the most insightful contributions comes his brother Edward Mapplethorpe, who when started to make an impact as an artist as well was forced by his older brother to change his name as to avoid any confusion.

That ambition informed the work from the start. At art school, Mapplethorpe asked 'What hasn't been done?' The first pieces to really set out his stall - his early polaroids - were he says cheaper to produce that having to buy all the gay porn magazines he'd been using for his sex collages. He networked and he charmed, telling fashion designer Carolina Herrera she should let him take her photograph because one day he'd be famous and she'd regret it (she let him). He was right, of course. At his death at 42 from complications due to AIDS in 1989, Mapplethorpe was at the height of his creative powers.

Mapplethorpe was right, of course. He - and photography - would only rise in the art world's estimation, a fact illustrated by the framing of the film within the context of the new retrospective. Here, the curators from Getty and LACMA muse over the art, no sniggering or shock included as if the whole world had moved on from Senator Jessie Helms' cries 25 years ago. But the film ends with their teams discussing who the shows are to be marketed - taking account of the fact that no nudity can be included on public posters, or that the launch invitations couldn't bear any explicit markings that would go against U.S. mail outlines. It is a neat device, bookending the film in the culture wars that Mapplethorpe in part ignited and which still inflame today. It is a mark of his brilliance that in a world where we are over saturated with images, explicit or not, his retain a unique spark.


Text Colin Crummy
Photography courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 

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