When the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation made a massive gift of art and archival pieces to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The J. Paul Getty Museum in 2011, a retrospective seemed inevitable. Five years later it has arrived with exhibition space at both museums. It's the first time Mapplethorpe's work will receive a full museum show in Los Angeles, and it seems that the L.A. institutions are making up for lost time.
The collaborative exhibit, entitled "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium," showcases his black and white portraits, Polaroids, still lifes of flowers, and, of course, the photos of gay male subculture which caused such controversy when they first toured the United States in 1989 and 1990. But at the LACMA show there are surprising elements from his life as an art student too like handmade necklaces, elements for an unmade stop-motion video, and 3-D sculptural works. These pieces are both archival and suggestive of work that Mapplethorpe might have continued had he lived longer.
The LACMA exhibit takes up five rooms. In advance of the opening, The Frame's John Horn took a tour with Britt Salvesen, the show's curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department.
So if you're feeling overwhelmed navigating the show, we've highlighted fives pieces to look out for.
FIVE HIGHLIGHTS OF LACMA'S MAPPLETHORPE EXHIBIT
1. Philip Prioleau's belt buckle
This photograph, entitled just "Philip Prioleau," is of a model with whom Mapplethorpe worked extensively. Brit Salvesen was drawn to it because of his "hands around that belt buckle." She says that it was one of the only photographs that both she and her fellow curator at The Getty wanted in their shows. In the end, LACMA got it.
He's wearing an open shirt, denim jeans, and a belt buckle. I wanted this picture because of those items of clothing and the gesture with the belt, and the jeans — [they] fit in with this sculpture that Mapplethorpe made that consists of T-shirts. I had this idea of pictures of men conveying their identity with clothing.
2. Mapplethorpe's Necklaces
Mapplethorpe made necklaces out of found objects like beads, animal teeth, old coins, and dice. Britt Salvesen says that in an early portfolio he had polaroids and necklaces. But she first discovered this part of his past through Patti Smith's memoir, "Just Kids."
She describes how he would scavenge items from restaurants and thrift stores, and how he would model and wear the jewelry in an effort to generate interest in it. We have a few portraits in the exhibition of him wearing the jewelry. It was something he took very seriously.
3. Untitled Altar Piece
A small altar is made out of a bedside table, a lamp hanging from the ceiling, fur, a silk scarf, a hammer, and fabrics displays "a few different impulses in Mapplethorpe's early work."
The Catholic iconography is maybe the most obvious. It's an altar piece. There's also a masked picture of Jesus, a statuette of Jesus — but these are also domestic objects he's put together and probably scavenged.
4. The short film, "Lady"
This seven-minute short film is of Lisa Lyon, a bodybuilder, model, and performer. Made it 1982, it has "something of the feel of a music video" from that era. According to Salvesen:
[Lyon] was a successor-muse to Patti Smith. You can see how [Lyon] enjoyed wearing different kinds of costumes and guises, [and there are] different aspects of femininity that she played with. The video is in color, unlike the photographs. Mapplethorpe spoke a few times about his interest in directing.
5. Elements of an unrealized stop-motion film
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith collaborated on a lot of different kinds of projects. In one display case at LACMA, you can find elements of what's called "a tantric garden piece" with cut-out figures and paper shapes that Salvesen says were probably the makings for a stop-motion video.
This tantric garden piece depicts Mapplethorpe himself and Patti Smith. These are all loose pieces that can be moved around, almost like paper dolls — not just the figures, but a person in a priest's robe, some stars, triangle shapes, hearts. We're told that this was raw material for an unrealized stop motion animation.
"Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium" opens at LACMA on March 20.