Significant art and associated archives from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation have been jointly obtained by the Getty Museum, LACMA, and Getty Research Institute, and this week marks the start of a partnership to protect and preserve the work of the controversial photographer. The work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) stirred up heated debate around public funding for the arts in the 1980s. Now, a longer view of art history situates Mapplethorpe’s stark, formal work as a key precursor to contemporary images of celebrity and beauty, created by Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. Over the next few years, photography lovers in this city will have their fill of Mapplethorpe’s sumptuous imagery as both museums gear up for a large joint show. But in the meantime, interested patrons can visit both the Getty and LACMA for a surprisingly satisfying preview of things to come.
The Getty’s show In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe contains the iconic image of Patti Smith with white shirt and suspenders (a la Frank Sinatra, according to the show’s curator Paul Martineau), and her voice accompanies the image on the audio guide. Though only hung in the tiniest of the Getty’s galleries, each of the carefully chosen images exposes a facet of Mapplethorpe’s career, from collages made while he was in art school, to the male nudes that made him famous, to his exquisite studies of flowers.
LACMA’s show, Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ contains the more controversial images, so the smart way to take in these exhibits is to see the Getty’s show first for a sort-of gentle introduction. Then, decide for yourself if you are interested in viewing the more sexually explicit images. The Getty show is hardly upsetting, and presents a survey of the artist’s career, whereas LACMA exhibits three separate portfolios, more a study in depth that includes the homosexual S&M imagery. LACMA’s show also includes the floral photographs and Mapplethorpe’s other favorite subject, African American men. Because Mapplethorpe’s subject was often the nude (and because he famously challenged the boundaries of art with his depictions of male S&M), the show is really, really not for kids younger than High School – and the LACMA show will certainly shock even the toughest teenager.
Whatever dust the artist and his work stirred up in the 80s, the images on display at the Getty are nothing short of breathtaking, for both their classical iconography and because the prints themselves are so incredibly gorgeous. The elegance of Mapplethorpe’s design and composition stand the test of time — The Getty has chosen to compare the way he arranged his subjects to poses from classical sculpture. The prints are luminous, exposed and printed impeccably.
As those who read Patti Smith’s memoir about her relationship with Mapplethorpe remember, she and Robert — two fixtures in the art galaxy of the late 60s and 70s– started out as a couple of scared, curious seekers. Smith’s description of how they coached each others’ creativity into being is so tender and intimate that much of the power of the book comes from that juxtaposition with the tough, sexually indeterminate East Village rebel image each presented. We highly recommend the book, Just Kids, which won the 2010 National Book Award, as a companion to the two shows.