Will controversy be Mapplethorpe's lasting image?by Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is best remembered for the controversy that surrounded some of his work. In the 1970s and '80s he was castigated for glorifying sexually explicit content and homoerotic themes. A new exhibition of his photographs at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis explores his more traditional side, in which he reveled in the classic beauty of the human form.
Minneapolis — Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis is one of only two galleries in the nation that work directly with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to display the artist's images. This is gallery owner Martin Weinstein's second show of Mapplethorpe's photography. He says it's a look at some of Mapplethorpe's most beautiful pieces, centered on photographs of male and female torsos. There's a man seated on a stool, a woman arching her back, and a trio of nudes posed almost as you might expect to see them on a Grecian urn.
"We've presented him here once again in the classical style," says Weinstein. "My feeling is that Robert became a larger-than-life person, so we're dealing with celebrity status. I think that we've stripped that off in this show."
It's not easy to separate Robert Mapplethorpe's infamy from his photographs.
Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42. Despite his early death, he left behind an extensive body of work, ranging from intimate portraits of famous artists to luminous still-lifes of flowers. But it was his series of photographs depicting sado-masochistic sex acts that drew him the most attention.
Just a few months after his death, a touring retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work launched a culture war. Republican Senator Jesse Helms attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for funding pornography. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC cancelled the showing it had scheduled. When the exhibition arrived at Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center, its director was indicted for pandering and obscenity. The director was eventually acquitted of all charges.
Minnesota Center for Photography's director George Slade says that firestorm has all but burned out.
"Maybe there's a bit of controversy that clings to the name that may help market it, that may draw people in," says Slade. "But I think that he has become, if not a mainstream, blue-chip artist, at least a highly-thought-of modernist and formalist, and a very accepted artist."
Slade says with time, Mapplethorpe's images have become much more widely respected. He compares him to the 1930s photographer Edward Weston. Weston took a luscious picture of a bell pepper that looked almost human.
"For an audience in 1930, a pepper was something that you chopped up and put on your salad; it wasn't something that made fine art," says Slade. "So there was a transgressive quality to that. I mean, Weston photographed toilets as well and made beautiful pictures of toilets. And people said, 'That's not art, that can't be art. That's not something I want to look at.'"
Weston is now considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Many believe Mapplethorpe fits in that select group, too. Photographer Lynn Davis was a friend of Mapplethorpe. She says he was an accomplished photographer, not just in terms of his subject matter, but also in terms of his technique:
"There are many things about his work," says Davis. "He was always trying new things. He did lithographs, he did platinum prints, he tried everything. And had he lived longer, I think he'd be right along with the best of them today."
Davis says ultimately Mapplethorpe will not be remembered for his controversial images; he'll be remembered for his entire body of work. Nineteen of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs are on view at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis through mid-July.
- All Things Considered, 05/10/2007, 5:55 p.m.