Mapplethorpe: An American In Paris
Regardless whether one agrees that he stands among the greatest photographers of the late 20th Century, it can hardly be disputed that Robert Mapplethorpe remains one of the most provocative, taboo breaking, and influential artists of his generation and still today. Any doubts are easily dispelled by catching the major retrospective of his work on exhibit at the Gran Palais in Paris through July. A technical master of the photographic medium, Mapplethorpe created a vast oeuvre of highly stylized black and white portraits, nudes and still lifes, many of which are instantly recognizable for their overtly erotic impact. These created a scandal in Washington D.C. and the art world, when an exhibition of his work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was cancelled before opening in June 1989. Resisting pressure from conservative lawmakers, the Washington Project for the Arts successively rescued the show to record breaking crowds.
The current Paris show includes some 200 images spanning the Long-Island-born artist’s career from the early 1970s to the time of his death from AIDS in 1989. During those two decades he captured New York’s vibrant cultural scene through his striking portraits of artists, musicians, actors and notable personages such as William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Marianne Faithfull, David Hockney, Grace Jones, Roy Lichtenstein, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. Then there are his more underground depictions of gay sex, sadomasochism and fetishism, counterpointed by his jaw-dropping beautiful photographs of flowers. While undoubtedly some of Mapplethorpe’s work maintains shock impact even today, what becomes evident in an exhibit of this range and scale is the classical equanimity with which Mapplethorpe treated all his subjects and compositions – whether flowers or penises, statuary or leather. The show also includes rare color works, Polaroids and archival materials. Not only is the exhibit stunning; the Gran Palais is itself a magnificent venue. If you can’t make it to Paris, you can order the beautifully mounted catalogue via their website. For further background, Patti Smith’s acclaimed memoir “Just Kids” chronicles her intimate friendship with Mapplethorpe in the explosive New York of the 1960s and 70s.
By Jorge Socarras