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L.A. the right home for Robert Mapplethorpe collection

There's a good reason that Robert Mapplethorpe's trove of photographs and archives deserve a place at LACMA and the Getty: His sly take on straight photography turned convention on its head and gave an important artistic touchstone in Southern California a new form.

February 09, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • "Tulip, 1977" shows the photographer's signature style.
"Tulip, 1977" shows the photographer's signature style. (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

News of a museum's major art acquisition isn't usually accompanied by the question, "Why?" So it's interesting to see it crop up in reports that a huge cache of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, plus his archives and youthful mixed-media art, has been jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The specific gist of the puzzlement seems to be: Why Los Angeles?

Mapplethorpe was born in Floral Park, Queens, and spent his entire working life in New York (he died there at 42 in 1989). Although the only time I met him was at a dinner party in Pasadena, he didn't have much connection with Southern California.

Yet, since when is an artist's studio zip-code a ruling criterion for art museums with encyclopedic collections such as LACMA and the Getty? The puzzlement recalls an infamous column written by a New York critic 20 years ago when the Getty bought James Ensor's magnificent "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889," claiming the signal Expressionist masterpiece really "belonged in Europe." Apparently the critic hadn't spent much time at his local Metropolitan and Museum of Modern Art.

Besides, L.A. has been central to camera scholarship in America for nearly a generation now, thanks to the Getty's vast photography collection. That status was partly launched by the museum's purchase of the incomparable holdings assembled by patrician curator and collector Sam l Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe's lover and mentor. An easier argument could be made that of course Mapplethorpe's trove belongs here.

Still, aside from extenuating circumstances, there's another important reason the acquisition makes perfect sense — a reason that goes to the core of the artist's work.

The engine driving Mapplethorpe's aesthetic was dismantling the encrusted conventions of so-called straight photography. Straight photography was essential to Southern California's most acclaimed modern camera work — indeed, perhaps its most acclaimed Modern art of any kind prior to the 1950s. For instance Edward Weston, toiling in the 'teens and 1920s in his studio in Glendale (then called Tropico), became a quintessential straight photographer.

Straight photography was a dominant Modernist principle of the 20th century. Its claim was that camera work should be pure — that is, it should not attempt to emulate painting, but should instead strive to respect the distinctive physical characteristics of the photographic medium. Mapplethorpe set about harnessing every entrenched principle in the straight-photography book for one sly and liberating purpose: to use them to make not-so-straight photographs.

Mapplethorpe was gay. For him, straight photography had other meanings.

The pun hides in plain sight everywhere in his work — not least in his homoerotic and sadomasochistic images, which caused such a sensation. This was straight photography that made straight society blush, sometimes to the point of apoplexy.

Weston's carefully composed still lifes are one template for Mapplethorpe's studio work, while Weston's sleek, sensual nudes are likewise a model for what Mapplethorpe did later. It's just that the younger artist replaced Margrethe Mather and Tina Modotti, who were Weston's straight muses, with large black men and gay male porn actors, who were anything but.

Straight photography was the medium's dominant 20th-century mode — Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham and scores more. It even defined the era's casual, unmanipulated brand of street photography, shot outside the controlled environment of an artist's studio. If he looked at "The Americans," Robert Frank's 1959 masterpiece of street photographs, Mapplethorpe was unlikely to see himself pictured in the book.

A not-so-subtle — and often very witty — undercurrent in Mapplethorpe's pictures is this very social dimension of straight photography's aesthetic dominance. It turns up in pictures of leather men in bondage, tied together with chains while posing like a typical suburban couple in a mundane living room, or of powerful bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, whose bulging muscles don't conform to straight assumptions about female eroticism.

Last but not least, there's the author of the straight-photography doctrine — a peripatetic art critic who lived and worked in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and, for many years, Los Angeles, where he even played a bit-part as a court magician in Douglas Fairbanks' silent 1924 swashbuckler, "The Thief of Baghdad." Sadakichi Hartmann was a poet of German-Japanese descent, a youthful protégé of Walt Whitman in New Jersey and frequent lecturer in the West Hollywood studio-home of his pal, architect Rudolph Schindler.

Reviewing a 1904 exhibition filled with so-called Pictorialist photographs that strained to mimic the textural handwork and softened light of paintings, Hartmann exhorted photographers to throw their clever techniques overboard and instead "to work straight." In the darkroom, he wrote, he objected to "the use of the brush, to finger daubs, to scrawling, scratching and scribbling on the plate, and to the gum and glycerine process, if they are used for nothing else but to produce blurred effects."

Needless to say, straight photography — as an ethos and a term — caught on. And it reigned supreme, at least until Mapplethorpe and some other artists came along in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps more than any other, he was instrumental in busting up the convention. While following all the photography establishment's rules, Mapplethorpe nonetheless made straight photography queer.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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