Museum of Contemporary Art

Robert Mapplethorpe first made his mark in the art world in the early 70s with brutally honest photographs of a sexual underground few Americans had seen or even heard of. His depictions of the gay, sadomasochistic demimonde explicitly explored the dynamic of pleasure and pain–and power. Often they showed the artist as a participant.

But his statements were not political in the spirit of the times, nor were they tabloid sensational. Even at the very beginning of his career, Mapplethorpe posed and stylized his visions, rendering them with a cold beauty that transcended the subject. The acts he depicted may have been taboo, but his artistic refinement–his concern for a beauty as classic as a Greek statue–made them impossible to dismiss.

Everything Mapplethorpe did–the exhaustive nude series, the celebrity portraits, even the flowers and still lifes–was informed by this early work. His work is concerned not so much with sexuality–in fact it is curiously devoid of eroticism in spite of its explicit nature–as with power and beauty in even the most unexpected subjects.

Yet if the Museum of Contemporary Art had its way, the public would know little of the impact the earlier images had on the career of photography’s bad boy. “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” a retrospective with more than 150 images, fails to give his early work its due.

You have to look very carefully to see, let alone experience, these early images in this exhibit. Three rows of images have been placed parallel to the floor inside a wide glass case that’s backed up against a wall. The top row, half hidden by glare, features the S and M photos. The images of leather men and bloody cock harnesses, which may seem horrific to some, are shown as small eight-by-tens. If you lean far enough over the case, you can see the notorious fist-fucking shot, the guy pissing in his friend’s mouth, and the man sticking a finger up his penis. The unveiled frankness of these shots demonstrates Mapplethorpe’s revolt against the idea of a sexual formula.

The MCAs timid placement suggests that the museum may have thought these images too shocking for its audience. By making them difficult to see, the MCA allows the casual viewer to overlook them. But that viewer is also cheated. Without context, a novice “Mapplephile” might think the earlier pieces were just an exercise in documenting promiscuity, and might dismiss them as a sort of “homodecadence.” But that viewer would lose valuable insight into the high-gloss flowers Mapplethorpe has filled the art market with. For the S and M and the flower pictures share the same bold, unsparing aesthetic.

The second row in the same glass case is devoted to flowers, and the third shows images from Mapplethorpe’s series on black men. By displaying three of his most important bodies of work together, the MCA suggests it understands the link between them. Yet by giving Mapplethorpe’s more recent, more commercial work prominence, the MCA seems to want to shift the focus away from Mapplethorpe’s past.

But the man pictured pulling the handle of a riding whip from his anus in a 1978 self-portrait is the same man who took the painfully beautiful color pictures of flowers that appeal to corporations and prestigious collectors. That is Mapplethorpe’s basic genius.

Mapplethorpe graduated in 1970 from Pratt Institute, where he focused on painting and sculpture. His earliest works were collages made from torn pages of glossy gay magazines. Where censors might have placed a black dot, Mapplethorpe threw the spotlight–sometimes on genitals, sometimes on two pairs of male lips that are about to meet. With this work Mapplethorpe began to challenge perceptions of what was acceptable.

The MCA has on exhibit few of these collages, and has isolated them from the rest of the work. Admittedly, they are not particularly compelling, but they do underscore the artist’s singular vision. Yet Mapplethorpe’s recent nonphotographic experiments with textiles, mirrors, and other materials–probably the least interesting and least threatening of his works–are integrated throughout the exhibit.

At New York’s Whitney Museum, where a similar retrospective was shown last summer, entire walls were dedicated to the S and M pictures and other early, explicitly sexual work. No one who saw those images could escape them; they remained vivid in the mind even as one moved on to the portraits, the flowers, and the more classic nudes.

How a work is displayed can certainly make a difference in its impact. One of Mapplethorpe’s best-known images is his 1980 “The Man in the Polyester Suit,” a portrait of a black man in a white polyester suit, his large, uncircumcised penis hanging semihard out of his pants. It is a fine example of Mapplethorpe’s sense of humor and of his obsession with the real and perceived power of black men. The Whitney exhibited this piece as a 30-by-40-inch print; the MCA put an 8-by-10 in the display case and another version, a 16-by-20, on the wall–it’s one of a handful of images that appear twice in the MCA show. At the Whitney the piece was exhibited so that the cock was at face level. Even though the photograph was hanging on the wall in a museum, it was hard not to have to convince oneself that it was OK to stare at a penis. At the MCA the cock has become minuscule, and seeing the first image in the display case robs the larger print of its drama.

Drama, after all, is what Mapplethorpe is about. One of the last pictures taken before his death from AIDS last week was a decaying skull. There is nothing sentimental or even metaphorical about this image; like the S and M pictures, it is astonishingly literal.

Mapplethorpe’s death makes the early pictures doubly important. Not only do they help us understand the origin of his death song, but they underscore the tragic sexual freedom of this generation of gay men in America. It is critical to understand that these pictures are not an antisex statement. They are an honest group of photos about a guy involved in the S and M world of New York in the 1970s. They openly portray a lifestyle we may question, but one we cannot deny existed. Indeed, these photographs may turn out to be the most lasting evidence of a dying culture. Mapplethorpe refused to discuss them, advising the public to look at the pictures to see what he was like when he was young. He offered no apologies.

There are no apologies and no shame in the remarkable self-portraits in the MCA show. Most are scattered throughout the exhibition, so the full effect of Mapplethorpe’s chameleon qualities is diluted, but they still mesmerize. Often layered, sometimes vulnerable, the self-portrait never hides the emotional state of the artist.

Mapplethorpe consistently turned the camera on himself to test his own temperature. Whether in the act of sexual adventure or simply staring into the lens, he always provided an insightful reading–on both sides of the camera. Sometimes the images are filled with life and excitement, sometimes death. As he points the camera inward, you watch him mature from one picture to the next.

His 1975 self-portrait shows a boyish man, filled with life. But by 1978, he glares into the camera with the whip up his ass. Perhaps his best-known self-portrait is the 1980 shot, showing him bare chested, his hair blown dry and makeup on his face–the artist as breakable porcelain, as androgyne. Another 1980 portrait shows him as a high-society drag queen, dressed in a white fur, with lipstick and full makeup.

Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits show an obsessive perfectionist, as well as a person in tune with his own urgency. In a 1982 portrait, we see him in a leather jacket, submachine gun in his hand, standing in front of a five-pointed star–a portrait that was seen by many critics as fascist. In 1986 we see the first public signs of Mapplethorpe’s illness, as he stares into the camera with a puzzled, hard look. His hair is thinning and his features are fragile, but he stands proud in his tuxedo. The most recent, and most eerie, public portrait shows a frail head popping out of blackness, a hand clutching a cane that has a skull for its handle. Mapplethorpe’s eyes tell of his fears and his reluctant and inevitable surrender. As always, Mapplethorpe holds himself up for all to see. He cares little about what we think, so long as we question traditional standards.

Of course, not all of Mapplethorpe’s images have the loaded connotations of his earlier works or of the self-portraits. He often said he was not out to make a statement, that the statements grew out of the work. Yet his clever manipulation of his subjects became his signature. A beautifully photographed flower takes the stance of a limp cock. A sculpted black man sits in a fetal position on a pedestal as if he were stone. A calla lily falls into the picture frame, its leaf folded out like a tongue or vagina, its stamen a uvula or clitoris.

These associations we make are not derived from our own sense of sexuality, but are a product of the idealized icon Mapplethorpe made of almost everything he touched. Whether he was photographing an orchid, a bodybuilder, a celebrity, an art patron, or a piece of cold stone–everything has that magic touch. The wonderful way he worked with light, the ability he had to find the perfect line in a flower or a body, the way he looked at a man’s torso or a woman’s stomach were all uniquely his.

The flowers on exhibit are a break from the harder images. Though not as deliberate in their power, they offer a silent drama that appeals to both the casual observer and the Mapplethorpe fanatic. Whether black-and-white, or color, the photographs of lilies, irises, and orchids offer a welcome calmness. Though not nearly as provocative as his nudes, the flowers seem to be a subject to which Mapplethorpe returned time and time again. It’s as if he had to sit back and take a deep breath, and the flowers offered him the luxury of manipulating an object, but remaining detached. Gone is the vulnerability of his self-portraits or the frankness of his sexual photos. But though they are exquisitely photographed, there is also something about the flowers that is almost too calculated, too deliberately designed to blend into corporate walls.

There were few people Mapplethorpe photographed continually. Lisa Lyon, the first woman bodybuilding champion of any renown, posed for him many times, and the results were eventually published in Lady Lisa Lyon. Lyon had the perfect body for the photographer who rarely photographed flaws.

Some of the images of Lyon place her in typical male-fantasy poses. But she has a refined body, solid from years of muscle building and determination, and even her most passive poses lack the surrender usually identified with nude female figures. Sexuality does not play a role in these images.

Ken Moody was also photographed repeatedly by Mapplethorpe, and is one of many men featured in Black Book, Mapplethorpe’s controversial book published in 1986 that made clear his obsession with black men. A good number of pictures from the black-men series is included in the MCA exhibit. These men flex their muscles, allow themselves to be put on a pedestal, place Klan-like hoods over their faces, pose in wet T-shirts, and stand on a boardwalk naked except for boots, black caps, and sunglasses. Penises hang limp or stand proudly erect, held out for display. These photographs demonstrate the white photographer’s obsessive and festishistic fascination with black men. That these men stood naked for a white photographer angered many artists and critics, and the strength of the images may have diminished under the weight of racial politics.

There are many models in Black Book, but Moody makes the series a wonder. The grace with which he carries his body, his muscle structure, and his quiet sense of sensuality fulfill the promise of Mapplethorpe’s classic aesthetics. But what makes Moody different from the others isn’t just his musculature and shaved eyebrows and plucked eyelashes. With his eyes closed, his hands covering his crotch, Moody didn’t let his penis become a part of the pictures. Mapplethorpe did not make Moody’s sex a focal point, a puzzling and unexplained, yet wonderful, discovery.

The last and possibly most important person with whom Mapplethorpe had a lasting relationship was rock singer Patti Smith, who was a friend of his when they were students at Pratt. Mapplethorpe took the photograph on Smith’s 1988 album cover, and Smith collaborated with Mapplethorpe to produce a 1987 book of his images and her poetry. Throughout their friendship, Mapplethorpe photographed her. It’s a relationship similar to the one between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, though not as extensive. On display at the MCA are some rare Polaroids taken in 1973 of an introspective and private Smith. In 1975 he photographed a tougher, yet frail Smith for her album Horses. In 1976 Smith is naked on the floor, crouched next to a radiator. It’s a vulnerable Smith and a compassionate Mapplethorpe. There’s a warm heart, not just an icy eye, behind the lens of the camera–this is the heartbeat behind the calculated nude or flower. It’s a Mapplethorpe who was never seen again.

Mapplethorpe always had a special eye for Smith, who is not a classic beauty and does not have the kind of strong physical presence toward which he gravitated. His photographs of her are personal, and his most recent formal portrait of her, taken in 1986, casts her as a Madonna, a life force–the opposite of the ghostly self-portrait that foretold his own death.

Perhaps the least extraordinary of Mapplethorpe’s works are his portraits of the rich, powerful, and famous. There’s the notorious picture of Louise Nevelson looking like a ghost from hell, Louise Bourgeois holding one of her famous sculpted penises, Andy Warhol, Leo Castelli, Sam Wagstaff, and a slew of other celebrities–all eager to be handled by the master icon maker. Some of these are terrific portraits, though most of them fail to engage the way the portraits of Patti Smith, Lisa Lyon, and Ken Moody do.

Of course, not all of the photographs at the MCA are engaging–many are impersonal, chic, and border on the cliched. But the surprises and challenges are well worth the few disappointments. Here was a man who paid careful attention to detail, who forced viewers to engage in his work–mirrors are often used as frames–and to abandon their innocence in the hope of understanding different worlds.