Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Jocelyn Packman

Published on June 02, 2019

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    In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, many New York institutions are rolling out exhibitions that celebrate queer culture. For their part, the Guggenheim has offered up a beautiful tribute to the photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) in their exhibition Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now. The show will be presented in two stages; the first part of Implicit Tensions on display now focuses on the Guggenheim’s substantial collection of works by Mapplethorpe while the second (July 24, 2019–January 5, 2020) will showcase a smaller selection of works by Mapplethorpe alongside more contemporary artists from the Guggenheim’s collection, whose work will serve as an example of Mapplethorpe’s impact.

    During his lifetime, Mapplethorpe rose to prominence in the art world with his provocative photography that captured the underground cultures of New York City from tender portraits of gay men to unabashed explorations of the BDSM scene. Even after he died of complications related to HIV/AIDS in 1989, Mapplethorpe’s work continued to raise questions around decency and censorship. This first half of Implicit Tension, which spans Mapplethorpe’s career, treats his work with the same candor and respect that Mapplethorpe afforded his subjects. The majority of the works are clean black and white prints that are contrasted by plain white or black frames and unadorned white walls. Although the works are grouped by theme, they are in conversation with each other; whether it is the careful placement of flowers next to phalluses or Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits next to portraits of celebrities like Andy Warhol and Candy Darling. The very placement of the works lives up to the exhibition’s name, there is implicit tension in and between the photographs.

    The exhibition itself sits in the Guggenheim’s fourth floor Tower Level galleries, just off the museum’s iconic circular galleries. There is warning at each entrance that reads, “ This exhibition contains mature content and may not be suitable for all audiences”. There is a brief introduction to the show that gives a brief set up to the show – other than that there is very little wall text. Instead, visitors are allowed to wind their way through the show following the path that feels the most natural to them.

    I think that in many ways this presentation works well for the show. The display highlights the beauty in each work, regardless of subject or polish. The simplicity of the display makes the show look elegant and feel balanced. I was captivated by each piece, particularly the portraits whose subjects often make direct eye contact with the camera, and I couldn’t help but feel a connection with Mapplethorpe knowing that these intimate looks were meant for him. Since there was not much by way of text the works feel removed from the stigma and controversy that has mired his work from the beginning and allows visitors to create their own judgments, or to just appreciate the beauty of Mapplethorpe’s eye.

    Yet, I wondered isn’t that a comment? What is Mapplethorpe without controversy? His more explicit work was meant to shock and disturb; he was in search of the grit and stigma and rebellion. I wonder if something as simple as changing the wall color to a darker shade would have helped contextualize the grittier intents behind the work. I don’t mean to say that the work is sanitized, in fact, quite the opposite; almost every piece elicits some reaction from a visitor. After observing visitors in the galleries I noticed that there were mostly three different reactions: giggling, a quick, bashful averting of the eyes, or composed, serious face that people reserve for museums. I think people were looking for context and for discussion. The works were talking beautifully amongst themselves but did not leave space for visitors to talk with the art. Nor did the space make it easy to unpack the discomfort Mapplethorpe causes; there were only two groupings of benches in the entirety of the gallery, and many of the more explicit works were tucked into the back of the galleries, where the hallways were more narrow. Perhaps it would have been nice to give them either more space or less space to either encourage gathering or make the act of viewing more intimate.

    Additionally, I would have liked to see a way for visitors to engage with the art beyond just shock, awe, and discomfort. I feel like that is what the organizers were hinting at but just fell short of. They were unapologetic and intentional with the hanging of the gallery but then left no space for visitors to be the same way with their responses. It would be helpful to have some of the gallery guides that the Guggenheim employs in other galleries present to engage people and ask them to examine and sit in their uncomfortableness rather than move on. I think this would help connect the show to its next iteration as well as to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Mapplethorpe did much to bring the hidden worlds of queer subcultures to light; he wanted people to talk about his work – why not invite people to do so? I would hope that the conversations could be open and loud rather than hushed and academic.

    I left the show wondering what it will look like in its second iteration. Connection drove so much of Mapplethorpe’s career that I think it will be helpful to see his work with others and will hopefully help open avenues for conversation. I wonder if the choice behind the two stages of the show was purely practical (a limitation of space or availability of a piece) or if it was to draw out the celebration? I hope that by the second half of the show will make clearer Mapplethorpe’s role in the history of queer culture and showcase how his the risks he took with his art and his person in the name of truth and beauty drove the art world and ultimately society at large forward.

Latest Comments (1)

provocative and serious questions

by Kathleen Mclean - June 04, 2019

Thank you, Jocelyn, for this thoughtful and provocative review. You raise some important questions about the added value of the exhibition “walking the talk”—that is, mapping the exhibition intentions to Mapplethorpe’s intentions. This goes beyond a request for more interpretive information and
suggests that a dialogic approach might have been more powerful than the hushed and cool approach employed in the current exhibition. I hope Guggenheim staff see this review, and consider your thoughts as they develop part 2.

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