At a certain point as I was walking around the Mapplethorpe exhibition I thought, “You know something? I really don’t like Robert Mapplethorpe.”
This was during the first half of the show where most of the work was in his "nude portraiture" mode. I mean, I can appreciate the formality of it all—the lines and triangles, neat, original compositions, the sculptural references. But there’s just something in the gelatin-silver-shininess of it; it all seems too slick, too polished, and too self-consciously artistic, in a quasi-Athenaesque type manner (if anyone understands this reference). The lighting is too dramatic and the point he’s trying to make kind of labored—cocks/flowers, black/white, the homoerotic appreciation of form, and so on. My future wife disagreed. She liked the formality.
By the time I’d made it about half way through, I was beginning to question what it was, I mean, really what it was that I didn’t like. And apart from (please excuse the expression) some internal probing for latent homosexual/phobic matrices, the best I could do was to decide that it was the type of aesthetic that hasn’t dated well. It’s a bit too beautiful for us; we’re all about Nan Goldin now, and no matter what Mapplethorpe’s subject, there’s definitely the sense of him making it beautiful.
As I began on the other side of the exhibition, I was beginning to bend my opinions. On the return loop we got a lot of his portraits, all the famous people and darlings of New York at this period, including, of course, Patti, who still stands as one of his most interesting subjects, perhaps because she’s just that kind of character, perhaps because they had the relationship they did, who knows? Standing looking at these characters though—Arnie, Warhol, Grace Jones, Keith Haring, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Truman Capote, etc etc.—I did suffer what might be a revelation: that Mapplethorpe is just really really really eighties. And it’s this I find difficult. It might be true that so much of his imagery is of the kind that in fact defined a massive part of the aesthetics of that decade. So it might be this: he’s a victim of his own success; he set the standard that became so big it turned round and swallowed him. It’s possible. Plus, his portraits are really cool.
After this we had the "adults only" room, with its sexy black curtain. There wasn’t anything too shocking in there: some more S+M type shots, a guy with a whip up his arse, one guy licking another guy’s arse, that type of thing. None of the fisting type shots, none of the hetero-sexy, nothing that explicit (if you can understand how the two aforementioned need not necessarily be that explicit). It was kind of confusing to understand the criteria by which things had been selected for this room, but I guess that just goes to show the power of leather.
In conclusion: I don’t think this is a bad show. The selection of work is good, the curatorial work is good, Mapplethorpe is good. He’s just very eighties.
(All images: Robert Mapplethorpe; Courtesy of the artist & Grand Palais)