Opening this week in Los Angeles are two concurrent museum exhibitions honoring revolutionary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe, at The J. Paul Getty Museum, is a petite one gallery show displaying works chronologically, from Mapplethorpe’s early mixed-media objects to his photographic portraits, nudes and elegant still lifes. Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the simultaneous show that draws from a landmark Getty / LACMA joint acquisition of art and archival material (including some 2,000 photographs and 120,000 negatives) from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Acquired in February 2011, the majority of the collection was gifted from the foundation. The remainder came from funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust. The two shows mark the introduction, and offer a taste of an ambitious, two-site retrospective that will take place in 2016.
Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, explained Mapplethorpe as a forefather and predecessor to countless notable, contemporary talents as well as commercial giants Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. Martineau recently curated the hugely successful Ritts spring / summer exhibition.
Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946 – 1989) is an important cultural figure and fearless provocateur whose themes provoked conservatives and challenged Congress to uphold the freedoms of speech and artistic expression in the nineties. His black and white, highly stylized portraits of New York’s homosexual sadomasochistic subculture, along with his uninhibited studies of gender, race and sexuality, all became historic hallmarks that have influenced the evolution of contemporary culture.
For as bold as his earlier themes were, Mapplethorpe’s pristine works speak ever so softly. His vision and carefully crafted gelatin silver and platinum prints are of the highest quality and beauty. In the early 1980s, he refined his style and began concentrating on elegant figure studies and delicate floral still lifes, as well as glamorous celebrity portraits.
Mapplethorpe also evoked classical themes in his work, particularly in his nude figure studies. Using the motif of “The Three Graces” as depicted by artists from ancient Greece to the 19th century, Ken and Lydia and Tyler (1985) features one female and two male models of different racial backgrounds. The artist carefully selected a range of skin tones as a means of introducing a new non-binary awareness of gender, race and sexual orientation.
Within a very brief career span, Mapplethorpe’s confrontational perception of truth and beauty made him a “full-stop” artist in the contemporary fine art scene. The artist died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation was established in 1988, one year before his death.
In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe
The J. Paul Getty Museum
October 23, 2012 – March 24, 2013
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles – Brentwood
Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
October 21, 2012 – March 24, 2013
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles – Miracle Mile