On ViewThe Guggenheim
Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now
July 24, 2019 – January 5, 2020
In 1993, Robert Mapplethorpe gave the Guggenheim nearly 200 of his photographs, a gift the museum credits with launching its photography program. Last January, it opened Implicit Tensions, a survey of Mapplethorpe’s career. Part Two of the exhibition opened half a year later with a small selection of his prints and work by half a dozen artists who have, in various ways, responded to his imagery. It will be on view through January 5, 2020. As a way into the complexity of both this exhibition and of Mapplethorpe’s work, I am going to focus on Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), by Glenn Ligon, a gay Black artist whose work deals with questions of identity and sexuality. Begun three years after Mapplethorpe’s death, Notes is an installation of 91 of his photographs of nude Black men interspersed with 78 sheets of white paper, each framed and bearing comments on Mapplethorpe’s work, reminiscences of the artist, and bits of conversation from the world of gay men.
Brilliantly selected, images and texts interact to pose just about every question one might have about Mapplethorpe and his aesthetic. And, no surprise, this array of images is powerful as sheer imagery—photography for photography’s sake. Mapplethorpe had an impressive technical mastery of his medium and, more importantly, he was among his era’s leading formalists, right up there with Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol at his quasi-abstract best (I’m thinking of the shrewdly cropped Oxidation paintings, among other works). Mapplethorpe’s command of tone in black-and-white photography makes him the son or maybe the nephew of hyper-elegant Francesco Scavullo, the fashion photographer whose lusciously tonal images emerged in the pages of Cosmopolitan in the 1970s, when Mapplethorpe was still making Polaroid snapshots.
Scavullo got his start as an assistant to Horst P. Horst, the German-American photographer whose black-and-white fashion shots could be entitled, collectively, Studies in Luminous Gray. Horst also made photographs of nudes—mostly women—with an emphasis on breasts and thighs, but he also occasionally photographed nude men, who seem to be Black. They appear facing away from us, and in one image the model has assumed a symmetrical, cross-legged pose not all that different from certain poses seen in Mapplethorpe’s photos of Black men. If he were facing us, we would see his cock, and this photograph of Horst’s could take its place among the Mapplethorpe images Ligon included in Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, most of which place the phallus front and center. So here is a lineage: Horst, Scavullo, Mapplethorpe, with grandfather and grandson drawn repeatedly to the nude body and the man in the middle, Scavullo, taking up the subject only on occasion—his best-known nudes are of the prepubescent Brooke Shields and Burt Reynolds, naked in an odalisque’s pose.
In photographs by Mapplethorpe and his aesthetic forefathers, people are not dramatic agents. They are objects, and it is up to us to figure out what that means. As far as the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler is concerned, it means that Mapplethorpe stands condemned by his own work, for, as she says in a quotation Ligon includes in his Notes, this white photographer was driven by “a certain racist Romanticism of Black men’s excessive physicality and sexual readiness.” Her judgement is bolstered by Hilton Als, who says, “I saw myself reduced to Black and gay. Not a self, just Black and gay.” Als may or may not be talking about the effect of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Black men—either way, his comment applies to those images, as do quotations from the writings of James Baldwin and Fritz Fanon, who addressed their own Blackness and the way it is seen as Other by white people.
In one of Mapplethorpe’s two comments included in Notes, he says that he began photographing nude Black men because the subject was so rare in art that he saw an opportunity to be original. This rings true—this subject was for centuries just about entirely absent from Western art—yet it sounds disingenuous. Mapplethorpe wasn’t merely hoping to be original. In the second comment, he says that photographing these men was not a “turn on.” This, too, is believable. Posing his subjects, lighting them, and doing everything else that produced these accomplished photographs was a demanding process, and it is easy to imagine that the effort sublimated his sexual feelings.
When the novelist Alan Hollinghurst says of these photographs that they make Mapplethorpe’s “supremacy” evident, he may be talking about the photographer’s mastery of his medium. But, as the full quotation in Notes makes clear, he is pointing primarily to Mapplethorpe’s position of power in the exchange between artist and subject. He told these men how to arrange their bodies and of course he decided which photographs, of the many he no doubt took, would enter his oeuvre. As Hollinghurst makes clear, Mapplethorpe’s “supremacy” is “determinedly achieved by the natural intensity of his interest.” And his interest was in the Black body as a vehicle that delivers the object of paramount interest: the Black penis.
Ligon’s interplay of image and text deserves much more attention than a museum visit allows, so it’s too bad that the Guggenheim didn’t publish a catalog that would make repeated viewings and readings possible. I’ll end with a quotation from Lyle Ashton Harris, a Black artist who is represented in Implicit Tensions, Part Two with photographs of drag queens and Untitled (Dad) (2018), a mixed-media collage that, like Ligon’s work, engages the politics of Blackness. Of Mapplethorpe’s photos of Black nudes Harris says, “The whole idea that these men are in control of their representations is tired. We know what Mapplethorpe got out of it—the photographs. What did these men get?” Ultimately, we can’t know, but I’d say not much. I would also say that the subjects of these photographs look far more alive to themselves than to the photographer, who does his unsuccessful best to demote them to the objects of an obsession.