“With photography, you zero in; you put a lot of energy into short moments, and then you go on to the next thing.”
– Robert Mapplethorpe
I caught the tail end of the small one-room exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibit was meant to preview a new initiative by LACMA in partnership with the Getty Center to assemble an exhaustive retrospective of the photographer’s work derived from the vast collection which has just been acquired by the two institutions from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
The exhibit focused on three specific bodies of work, the X, Y, and Z Portfolios, which provide an insightful snapshot of three of Mapplethorpe’s favorite subject matters: gay sadomasicism, flowers, and african american male nudes. Beyond representing a large swath of his work, the X Portfolio, featuring explicit homosexual activities, and the Z Portfolio, featuring black male nudes, challenged the conventions of fine art in America and figured into the Culture Wars of the 1980s.
This collection was exhibited in a small cube-like room on the second level of the Ahmanson Building along the main corridor in between the grand central pavilion of LACMA and the Art of the Americas and Hammer Buildings.
The gelatin silver prints, all of uniform dimensions and grayscale, were arranged horizontally along the blood red walls of the exhibit room from left to right: the X series started from the leftmost wall, followed by the Y series which began below the last few photos of the X series and continued to the next wall on which it was joined by the Y series.
The exhibit itself was beautifully composed. These provocative and historically significant photos were small and hung at eye level, forcing visitors to stand close to decipher the work. The soft overhead lighting and deep red walls created a intimate atmosphere in which to interact with the sexual subject matter and formal substance of the photos, in a manner that offered a glimpse into the tortured socio-poltical and artistic climate which Mapplethorpe lambasted. The individual visitor could not avoid a potent emotional confrontation with the work.
I have always considered Mapplethorpe’s photography a fundamental component of the development of the medium and of avant-garde art in general. To begin with, the overtly sexual subject matter touched off an important controversy about the freedoms intrinsic to artistic innovation. In the 1980s, homosexuality was barely a suitable topic of conversation even amongst the most progressive crowds, and the X series bludgeoned this societal inertia. Any advocate or ally of the queer minority can appreciate the significance of these photos. Yet the photos appeared far beyond their time, and feature sadomasochistic activities that today remain popular only in the fringes of the queer community. As a member of that community, I laud this experimentation but still struggled to behold these violent fetishes; a response apropos to the exhibit’s intentions.
The Z series furthered this cultural catalysis, aggravating two societal sores that arguably remain unhealed: the role of race in american culture and arts, and the especially beleaguered plight of African American homosexuals within their own ethnic community. Homosexuality remains taboo within the global black community, facing especially heinous persecution in many African countries. Mapplethorpe’s careful documentation of the black male nude set within his broader body of work challenged this stigma by capturing the raw primal beauty of the black male musculature and form. The Z series demonstrated the medium’s capacity to capture and extoll the unbridled strength of the human form, and its ability to create dynamic portraits of still objects.
At first I didn’t find Mapplethorpe’s Y series of floral photos as interesting and provocative as the rest of his work. Yet, when exhibited sandwiched in between the overtly sexual subject matter of the X and Z sets, it becomes clear that the Y series photos represent an intensive study of form that highlights the flowers’ sensual contours. They appear as abstracted representations of human sexuality and genitalia, especially when juxtaposed against the two other sets.
All of these photos exemplify Mapplethorpe’s practice, especially his signature mastery of the photography light studio. His technical prowess is evidenced by the careful composition of each photograph and the corresponding lighting strategy that highlights the important attributes discussed above. The high-contrast lighting and shadows emphasize the textures and form of his subject matter, distilling complex three-dimensional objects into articulated geometric shapes. This distillation is essential to the development of the subject matter into concise insights into the cultural phenomena that Mapplethorpe investigates.
Unfortunately, I could only find a full document of the X Portfolio online, so I will focus my specific technical discussion on this group of photos. Notice most of the subjects are located centrally in the frame, and appear to be lit principally from above the photographer’s right side. This lighting strategy creates dark clearly articulated shadows that highlight the geometry of the subjects’ bodies and sexual apparatuses. I am particularly attracted to the photograph of the specialized belted underwear in which the subject’s leg has become a group of differently shaded geometric shapes, emphasizing its musculature. The full body portraits do not seem to conflict with the close-ups, especially when printed in the same size and format and displayed alongside each other; the array appears compositionally balanced, free of irregular weighting that might complicate the almost scientific documentation of these sexual activities. Notice also the monochromatic regularity evident across the collection, composed of a balanced array of shades. The gray palette appears to be applied uniformly, which definitely represents a technical challenge more than met by Mapplethorpe’s ability, especially in a time in which digital processing was not available. It is this precise methodology that beautifully captures this problematic subject matter in a quasi-scientific manner that elevates it the level of fine art.