By Rosemary McClure ‘13Editor-in-Chief
On Oct. 21 “Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ” will open at the LA County Museum of Art. The exhibition contains Mapplethorpe’s infamous homosexual sadomasochistic photos (the X portfolio), his flower still lifes (Y), and nude portraits of black men (Z). These prints have never been shown together before. LACMA has cooperated with Scripps photography teacher Ken Gonzales-Day to offer a free tour of the exhibit for students of the 5Cs on Nov. 3.
Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was an American artist known for his controversial black and white photos. Mapplethorpe photographed celebrities, documented the BDSM/leather scene, and showed magnificent homoerotic portraits depicting his friends and lovers in the late 70s and early 80s. Some of these controversial photos portrayed fellatio and various objects inserted into, well, just about anywhere, including Mapplethorpe’s own anus. The confrontational photos sparked debates about censorship, obscenity, and what should or shouldn’t be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mapplethorpe’s portraits of African-American men have also been criticized as racist. Penis close-ups such as Man in a Polyester Suit (1980) were accused of reproducing racist iconography constructed around erotic desire for black men, reducing them to their sexual prowess. Passionate critiques connect Mapplethorpe’s work to colonialism, erotic objectification, white supremacy, and black subordination. In 1989 Lyle Ashton Harris, a black gay artist, responded to Mapplethorpe’s work in a series of self-portraits (many of them nude) called Constructs. By exposing the artificial studio environment in which they were shot, Harris drew attention to the idealistic, fantasy-like quality such a backdrop lent to Mapplethorpe’s photos. As a black male artist himself, he bypassed the objectification inherent in white creation of images of the black body.
Defenders of Mapplethorpe’s work often insist that Mapplethorpe was not racist but rather fetishized and celebrated the black male body. Many of his models were also his lovers and had a certain amount of control over how they were photographed. Such was the case in Man in a Polyester Suit; Mapplethorpe’s model and lover refused to show his face and penis in the same frame.
A Mapplethorpe portrait of Andy Warhol sold in 2006 for $643,000, becoming one of the most expensive photographs ever sold. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS complications in 1989.
5C students interested in critically discussing Mapplethorpe’s work should bring their student IDs to the Ahmanson Building at LACMA at 11:45 a.m. on Nov. 3 for a free tour of the “XYZ” exhibit. For more information or to organize carpools, RSVP to the Facebook event or email Rosemary McClure at firstname.lastname@example.org.