Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits at San Jose Museum of ARt
103 black and white portraits hang with precise tastefulness at eye level, subtly-lit, meaningfully annotated and experientially revelatory. 103 squarish rectangles, mostly a little taller than wide, all of moderate size, modestly framed, offer few high-contrast shadows, melodramatic compositions or outlandish angles, but rather flatteringly-lit head-and-shoulder shots of people against a neutral background from a traditional perspective at middle distance: each subject’s head and chest occupies most of the rectangle. A few faces spill over the edges, shot achingly close. With Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits, San Jose Museum of
Art deploys to perfection its well-designed gallery space in presenting this sequence of images in a syncopation that draws the viewer into one work, and then along from portrait to portrait in an ever-deepening appreciation.
Despite the consistency of size, tone and composition, each is a singular biography. In totality, Portraits illuminates a time and place—and the man behind the camera.
At first glance these images seem to fall within the glamour portrait tradition that helped create the star system of Hollywood’s “golden age” in photographs by George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Bull. The subjects of those photographers, however, were not human. No, they were dramatically lit, fastidiously retouched icons eternally ready for a close-up. Mapplethorpe, too, aimed to flatter those who sat for his camera. His subjects were not products of a star factory but instead the determinedly individualistic denizens of the hectic and hard-edged world of celebrity and notoriety that was New York, the epicenter of the art world in the 1970s and 1980s.
Actors and artists, socialites and sex workers, bankers and bikers: the objects of Mapplethorpe’s portraits were so used to being photographed that the camera seemed simply an extension of their ego. Perhaps in the course of the sitting, something in each of them moved toward and merged with the camera—the dumb witness to this performance of themselves to the world. The eyes that look out to the viewer are looking at a mirror, not posing but caught at an inbreath of recognition. After all, the man behind the lens was not a stranger, but one of them.
An Irish Catholic boy from Queens propelled by an innate and relentless quest to create something distinctly his own, Mapplethorpe became the most extreme version of himself and lived hard on that shiny sharp edge within a world that exalted edginess and extremity. He died from complications of AIDS in 1989 at age 42. His work had already been celebrated for over a decade.
On book covers, center spreads and billboards many of his portraits merged with the history of his subjects—a luminous Susan Sarandon with her daughter looking out with loving trust; a relaxed David Hockney sinking into his own composition; Annie Leibovitz uncomfortable on the other side of a camera; Andy Warhol, his white hands and trademark white fringe both shielding parts of himself. These images were familiar beyond the artworld, part of the published texture of the decade.
Within the more discreet milieu of galleries and museums, Mapplethorpe was celebrated also for his dramatic images of flowers and nudes—bodies of work exhibited worldwide and which sold for huge prices. Shortly after his death, however, Mapplethorpe became notorious when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC refused to hang their scheduled National Endowment of the Arts-funded Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment due to the homoerotic and sado-masochistic content of the work.
The incident ignited an international scandal about publically-funded artwork, threatened the existence of the NEA and provoked countless public and private discussions of censorship and the line between pornography and art.
This is not the Mapplethorpe revealed in Portraits. Rather, curator Gordon Baldwin states, these portraits serve as Mapplethorpe’s most lasting legacy. Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits continues at San Jose Museum of Art through June 5.
(This article first appeared in the San Jose Metro)
The Exhibitionist is funded in part by a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.