LOS ANGELES — In a midcareer self-portrait, Robert Mapplethorpe depicted himself as a devil, with a bullwhip for a tail. But he ended up on the side of the angels. In 1989, a traveling survey of his work, with pictures of extreme homosexual acts, pushed the American culture wars into high gear. Religious groups raged. An indignant Congress cut federal money to artists. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, set to host the show, dropped it like a shot.
Mapplethorpe knew nothing of any of this. He was three months dead of AIDS at 42. Yet he was present by proxy. After the show’s cancellation, anti-censorship demonstrators gathered outside the Corcoran and projected his images on its facade, including another self-portrait, this one of a leather-clad punk with a pompadour and a disdainful snarl. The crowd viewed the images in mournful silence. A new Mapplethorpe, Saint Robert, was born.
A quarter-century later, canonization is complete. In Los Angeles, a doubleheader retrospective, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,”is on view at both the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A documentary film, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” will have its debut Monday on HBO. Rumor has it that a biopic is in the works. An artist once reviled as a pariah and embraced as a martyr has been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream. He’s now a classic, with auction prices to match. The question is, how does the work, cleaned of the grit of controversy, hold up?
John Wolf Advisory’s opinion: It holds up strong. With a three year exhibition concurrently commencing at LACMA and the Getty, traveling the globe and ending at The Guggenheim, his works are poised to sell out, and as an edition sells, the foundation raises the prices.