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Review: LACMA's 'XYZ' on Robert Mapplethorpe: Gay artist vs. straight tradition

Robert Mapplethorpe, instrumental in transforming photography's status in the art world yet mired in scandal, gets his due at LACMA's 'XYZ.'

November 04, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • A 1980 self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe.
A 1980 self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

Whatever happened to straight photography? The short answer is: X, Y and Z.

That was the name given by Robert Mapplethorpe to 39 black-and-white pictures gathered in three portfolios of photographs he shot with a Hasselblad 500 camera and published between 1978 and '81. (The co-publisher was Harry H. Lunn Jr., who had been a CIA agent before opening an art gallery in Washington, D.C.) The X, Y, Z Portfolios, rarely shown in their entirety, are on view through March 24 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Together with the J. Paul Getty Museum, LACMA is organizing a full Mapplethorpe retrospective for 2016. The Getty currently has a thumbnail overview — 24 images — of the artist's career, drawn from the two museums' joint-acquisition last year of his entire photographic output. But LACMA's "XYZ" show offers an excellent opportunity to experience a pivotal transformation in art.

For most of the 20th century, straight photography was the genre of camera work chosen by photographers with sincere aspirations to making art. Sadakichi Hartmann, the German Japanese writer who was photography's first great independent critic, threw down the gauntlet in 1904.

Writing in an early issue of Alfred Stieglitz's quarterly magazine Camera Work, a polemical journal dedicated to "the furtherance of modern photography," he urged his readers to stop trying to make camera pictures that mimic paintings.

Hartmann's "A Plea for Straight Photography" put photographers on critical trial — and found them guilty — for drawing on negatives in the darkroom to fabricate backgrounds for their pictures, etching them to create soft shadows in prints, daubing highlights to produce pictorial harmonies, painting in half-tones with a brush and more. Studio tricks hid the mechanical foundation of camera work.

Manipulated photographs, Hartmann lamented, held camera images in subjugation to "the prevailing clamor for high art." Instead, he implored photographers to "work straight."

And work straight they did. Slowly but surely, out went slick darkroom procedures. In came sharp focus, composing in the camera's viewfinder, documentary veracity and claims for objectivity. The unmanipulated photographic print came to dominate Modernist aesthetics into the 1970s.

Indeed, it's the technique Mapplethorpe learned in 1975 when he picked up a professional-grade Hasselblad. He was 29. Like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Minor White and countless others before him, he adhered to Hartmann's straight photography tenets.

But there was a difference. Unlike his predecessors, Mapplethorpe invested little faith in the idea of photographic purity. Instead, he was an apostate. In the wake of gay liberation, Mapplethorpe made straight photographs that were anything but straight — pun intended.

The X Portfolio centers on men engaged in gay sex, including hard-core sadomasochism. The subject wasn't entirely new. In Greek vase decorations, Indian miniatures and pagan temple sculptures, candid and highly refined sex pictures, heterosexual and homosexual, have been around since before Alexander the Great and the Mahabharata.

Photography's conventional dialogue with painting and sculpture, which so upset Hartmann, is also held close. Many Mapplethorpe compositions loosely relate to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, William Blake, Chaim Soutine and others.

Take one that is especially hard to look at. Blood-splattered testicles bound and stretched in a vice — a gruesome image of masculinity in extreme distress — are photographed close-up, filling the frame. The result evokes Rembrandt's iconic 1657 painting "Carcass of Beef," a flayed slab of raw meat unceremoniously strung up on a butcher's rack.

The echo doesn't stop there. In the 1920s, Soutine turned the Dutch Master's painted metaphor of brute sacrifice, filled with crucifixion overtones, into nearly abstract canvases. Mapplethorpe's photograph pulls it back to documentary truth, printed in an unsentimental range of lush tones on the gray-scale.

Tough, even gruesome photographs like this one are disconcertingly juxtaposed with the Y Portfolio's lovely images of cut flowers. Straight photographs by Cunningham, Weston and others mused on nature's impermanence in quintessential floral masterpieces. Mapplethorpe's fragile tulips, carnations and spider mums, sometimes tracked by menacing shadows, are italicized by the flowers' imminent demise.

The original term for a still life was nature morte — nature dead — complete with connotations of life's vanity. I'm unaware of any Mapplethorpe photographs of pansies, but the social implication of his barbed juxtaposition of fragile flowers and painful gay sex is hard to miss.

Meanwhile the elegant, African American male nudes in the Z Portfolio took one more step. They are flat-out classical — with a variation.

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