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Artist Robert Mapplethorpe found himself at the center of the culture wars of the 1980s and ‘90s for his best-known work, homoerotic and often explicit photographs that drew the ire of federal lawmakers. Now two major Los Angeles museums have mounted a retrospective of his work, asking viewers to take another look. Jeffrey Brown examines the artist’s life and legacy.
Now, looking back and looking anew at an artist at the center of the so-called "culture wars" of the 1980s and '90s.
Jeffrey Brown reports from Los Angeles.
Take another look: that's the invitation from two Los Angeles museums, together presenting a major retrospective of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe was best known for his homo-erotic photographs and explicit sadomasochistic imagery, and the political and legal battles around them.
Even now, we've chosen not to present his most controversial work. But the new exhibition, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium", wants us to see how much more there was to the artist.
BRITT SALVESEN, Los Angeles County Museum of Art: This gallery gets us to the 1980s —
Britt Salvesen is a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
For several years after the culture wars debate of the late '80s, early '90s, it was impossible to see the work as art because we were preoccupied with its status as evidence, let's say.
As part of that culture war.
Yes. And that really forestalled an assessment of his artwork.
Mapplethorpe grew up in a conservative Irish Catholic household in Queens, New York, and in the 1970s became part of the city's burgeoning gay scene. He focused from the beginning on three main subjects: portraiture, including artists and celebrities of the day, floral still lifes, and sex and the body.
Those are very traditional art historical subjects, I mean long before photography. So the question becomes, how do you make them your own? And I think Mapplethorpe does it through a refinement, a reduction of extraneous elements. His sense of perfection and beauty is what he applies to those traditional subjects.
PAUL MARTINEAU, J. Paul Getty Museum:
He has to be in table position, right in the center —
Paul Martineau curated a companion exhibition at the Getty Museum. The two museums acquired the artist's archives from the Mapplethorpe Foundation five years ago.
You won't find wilted flowers in his pictures. He liked flowers at their most powerful and most erect. Once they started wilting, he'd get rid of them. He really didn't like flowers. He liked pictures of flowers.
Was he after perfection? Was he after beauty?
He was after perfection. And beauty was high up there as well.
One regular subject was Patti Smith, the poet and later famed rock musician. She wrote about their youthful times in her National Book Award winning memoir, "Just Kids," and in 2010 told me about her friend and the ambition they shared.
PATTI SMITH, Singer/Songwriter:
Robert really believed in himself. Robert was a very interesting boy, because he was quite shy, yet absolutely confident in his abilities and that he would someday, you know, achieve acclaim. He saw his —
He knew that, he felt that?
He felt that, absolutely.
He would achieve fame, but for the public at large that came in 1989 when North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms took to the Senate floor to decry federal funding for a traveling exhibition of Mapplethorpe's work.
SEN. JESSE HELMS (R), North Carolina: I don't even acknowledge that it's art. I don't even acknowledge that the fellow who did it was an artist. I think he was a jerk.
Bowing to political pressure, Washington's Corcoran Museum cancelled the show, and when it went on to the Cincinnati Arts Center, its director was arrested and charged with obscenity. He was later acquitted.
But Mapplethorpe's work would for years after be seen in this context. The Los Angeles exhibitions contain the controversial work, accompanied by warning signs of their explicit content.
Mapplethorpe himself, this is his last self-portrait, died of AIDS, at age 42, just before the cultural tempest burst.
FENTON BAILEY, Filmmaker:
He said that his life was the work of art and the pictures were secondary. The ultimate work of art as far as he was concerned was his life.
His life? So, I mean, he's creating himself as a work of art? Is that —
RANDY BARBATO, Filmmaker:
And documenting his life. I think that's part of why so much of his art has such impact, because there's an honesty to it. There's an intimacy to it.
Everything was a means to an end to his career.
He was a new type of art.
In conjunction with the joint exhibition, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato released an HBO documentary called "Look at the Pictures," a portrait of the man and his times.
The whole point of being an artist is to learn about yourself, the photographs I think are less important than the life that one's leading.
I think he was playing something of a game of cat and mouse with his audience and critics. I think he knew that it would provoke, but he also said he never was intending to shock people.
I mean, do you take that at face value? How could it not shock people?
I do and I don't. You know, exactly. I mean, he knew that the key here was to photograph things, to document things that people considered outside of the realm of art. The way he did it was to elevate them and make them beautiful. The composition and the lighting was incredible.
And so, he made what other people just dismissed as pornography, he made it art, and made us look at it seriously.
It's ironic, we live in a world now where you can access the most explicit imagery at the tip of, you know, at your fingertips, yet as a society we're still incredibly puritanical about sex. And so his images still, the explicit ones, I think people still find it challenging and uncomfortable. And I think that's important. I I think it's important for people to ask themselves why.
And these many years later, as "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium" shows, there's also much to look at anew.
From Los Angeles, I'm Jeffrey Brown for "The PBS NewsHour".
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