This exhibition presents the X, Y, and Z Portfolios (published in 1978, 1978, and 1981, respectively) by American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). Together, the 39 black-and-white photographs summarize Mapplethorpe’s ambitions as a fine-art photographer and contemporary artist, reflecting the tripartite division of his mature work: homosexual sadomasochistic imagery (in X); flower still lifes (Y); and nude portraits of African-American men (Z).
Mapplethorpe’s work has consistently provoked strong reactions. Some have condemned its explicit content, notably during the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s. Others defend the artist’s right to freedom of expression and admire his mastery of the photographic medium. LACMA’s exhibition offers audiences the opportunity to assess Mapplethorpe’s confrontational photographs—with their paradoxical mix of classicizing, austere form and raw, uninhibited content—through three series that defined not only his artistic career, but also a moment in American cultural politics. The exhibition, together with the Getty Museum’s concurrent In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe, celebrates the landmark joint acquisition, in 2011, of the Robert Mapplethorpe Archive by LACMA, the Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute.