A Moment Like This

Linda Yablonsky on Robert Mapplethorpe at LACMA and the Getty

Left: LACMA director Michael Govan introducing the documentary Look at the Pictures. Right: Dealers Manuela Wirth and Iwan Wirth. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

“IS LA REALLY ON FIRE?” a friend asked the other day. It definitely felt that way a couple of weeks ago, when planeloads of art players joined their counterparts in Los Angeles for a two-day romp through an art scene that seemed to expand with every breath.

Yet, the new Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel gallery’s inaugural VIP dinner was so exclusive that even a local legend like John Baldessari could not get in. The flummoxed artist stood outside the gallery with Keith Sonnier and Doug Aitken, other rejects, commiserating with his plus-two too many, artist Meg Cranston and print dealer Joni Weyl. “Joni wasn’t allowed in with me,” huffed the iconic Angeleno. “They wouldn’t serve me even one drink.”

Evidently, with just one hundred thousand square feet at their disposal, the hosts somehow couldn’t find room.

Perhaps Paul Schimmel hadn’t hipped his Swiss partners—Ursula Hauser, and Iwan and Manuela Wirth—to the Angeleno social custom of showing up for a dinner with an uninvited entourage.

Left: Artist Paul McCarthy. Right: Artist Meg Cranston with dealer Joni Weyl and artist John Baldessari.

Collector Eli Broad, Schimmel’s old nemesis at LA MoCA, where he used to be chief curator, freely entered with Mrs. Broad, just as bouncers gave way for a solo Maurice Marciano, Broad’s successor on the MoCA board. Schimmel’s replacement at MoCA, Helen Molesworth, was also welcomed (with her wife, curator Susan Dackerman), as were MoCA’s current director, Philippe Vergne, and his wife, the Pompidou’s adjunct curator Sylvia Chivaratanond. Vergne had the slim red badge of a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur pinned to his lapel. “Why not?” he said. It made him feel dressed up.

Certainly, there was reason for all to celebrate the humongous gallery’s arrival, just a hop and a skip from one of the worst skid rows in America. (Trust the art world to sort out the ironies that give class a bad name.) The reason was “Revolution in the Making,” an exhibition surveying seventy years’ worth of sculpture by a cross-generational group of thirty-four different women, from Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Asawa, and Lee Bontecou to Sheila Hicks, Jessica Stockholder, and Kaari Upson.

I took it in the following day, March 13, at an invitation-only brunch that preceded a public opening that promised a big barbecue. Inside the gallery, converted from a former flour mill by architect Annabelle Selldorf, I found a bookstore, a printed-matter “lab” anointed with drawings and notebook pages scrawled by Bourgeois, and twenty-four thousand square feet of exhibition spaces named not for collectors, as in museums, but for departed figures like Allan Kaprow and Philip Guston. Well, it’s not a museum.

Left: Filmmaker Beth B with her mother, artist Ida Applebroog. Right: Hauser & Wirth publications chief Michaela Unterdorfer and dealer/curator Paul Schimmel.

“It’s insane is what it is,” said Schimmel, curator of the show with art historian Jenni Sorkin. “This is not a gallery,” he added. “Or a museum. It’s a social space for art.” Isn’t every gallery? “We’re calling it an art center and education program,” he replied. “But I would not have been able to persuade Iwan and Manuela to do this if they hadn’t already had the idea.”

He was speaking of the thriving Hauser & Wirth compound in Somerset, England. It includes a working farm. In Los Angeles, its urban sister is growing a garden that will supply its forthcoming restaurant, Manuela, with fresh produce. The restaurant will be deployed in a courtyard between the buildings that is open to the sky. A twenty-foot-tall needlelike sculpture of thirty bound trees by Jackie Winsor, ca. 1972, stood like a maypole in the center, while artists, dealers, and curators at picnic tables chowed down on oysters.

The filmmaker Beth B accompanied her mother, Ida Applebroog, one of many gallery artists on hand for the preview. “I’m shocked that this never happened before,” she said of the all-female show. “But it’s fantastic!” Astonishing, actually, in its many parts, which underscore how powerfully female artists have wrested an uncanny beauty from wire, wool, resin, hemp, soil, paper, latex, concrete, and steel. As LACMA curator Stephanie Barron put it, “That Eva Hesse and Mira Schendel room is so beautiful it made me cry.”

“Want to see the secret tower?” Mary Weatherford proposed. How could I refuse?
The “tower” was actually a six-story building that once must have been offices or workrooms. Selldorf had given them a very light touch, leaving them scraped and raw for life as private viewing rooms. They felt secret because fire laws restricted the number of people allowed, but that didn’t keep out artists like Mungo Thomson, Matthew Day Jackson, Jacob and Samantha Kassay, or John Armleder and Mai-Thu Perret.

Left: Artist Matthew Day Jackson. Right: Samantha Kassay with artists Jacob Kassay, Mai-Thu Perret, and John Armleder.

“So this is where they stashed the boys,” Weatherford noted. With the exception of a scary piece by Isa Genzken, all of the works on view in the attic-like warren were by men. They included Paul McCarthy, who seemed surprised to have a whole room dedicated to him.

“What’s this?” wondered Armleder, indicating a Karla Black–type bubble of clear plastic that was marked with bits of colored tape and hung like butchered meat from a hook in a closet-size room. “That’s not art!” said Cristopher Canizares, a senior director at the gallery, hustling us out. “Funny,” Armleder said. “That’s the best piece I’ve seen here today.”

We left and joined the “public” swarming the galleries, as a trio of musicians imported from Basel performed on long horns in the courtyard. “I love the first-time visitors,” Schimmel confessed. “You set the bar high enough and it changes their lives.”

His words came to mind the following night, when the biggest crowd that the Getty Museum ever attracted to a photography opening—around a thousand people—showed up for its half of “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium.”

Left: Photographer Edward Mapplethorpe. Right: Getty Museum entrance.

The title, of course, is a pun on “The Perfect Moment,” the 1988 Mapplethorpe retrospective that started the culture wars of the 1990s, when an apoplectic senator, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, denounced the work on the floor of the United States Congress. Supposedly, times have changed. “Robert Mapplethorpe is no longer a controversial figure,” LACMA director Michael Govan had said earlier, a statement that I found immediately suspect.

In his lifetime, Mapplethorpe never had much of a footprint in Los Angeles. He was a child of New York, and everything that inspired him came from that city. So it seemed unusual that the foundation established in the photographer’s name would turn over his life’s work to the shared stewardship of the Getty Research Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Formidable as they are, it seems more appropriate for his archives to reside in New York. On the other hand, it was past time for Mapplethorpe’s West Coast close-up, and both the Getty and LACMA commemorated their acquisition with back-to-back exhibitions. I was curious to see if what they made of this cache, which included a number of images printed long after his death, was better than anything the Whitney or the Guggenheim could have done with the original Mapplethorpes already in their collections.

At the Getty, Mapplethorpe subjects Dovanna Pagowski and Robert Sherman (aka Bar Marmont hostess Constance Cooper), the artist’s brother Edward Mapplethorpe, friends like photographer Lynn Davis, and former assistants Dimitri Levas and Brian English were all on hand to see what difference passing time had made. “Oh my God!” said Sherman when he spotted Davis. “You haven’t changed a bit in twenty years!”

Left: Photographer Lynn Davis and Dimitri Levas. Right: Juan Carlos Menendez with film producer Laura Bickford and architect Peter Marino.

In the galleries, Mapplethorpe’s portraits of celebrities, black male nudes, and erotic flowers precede the thirteen hardcore s/m pictures in his “X Portfolio,” which were displayed in a waist-high vitrine at the back of the show. Visitors who queued to view it resembled mourners passing by a casket. The leathered-up architect Peter Marino, an obsessive collector of Mapplethorpe’s work, was livid at the museum’s limp-wristed approach. “The show I put together last year at Ropac in Paris had the X, the Y, and the Z portfolios,” he hissed. “And I assure you, none of it was discreet!”

The idea, said Getty photography curator Paul Martineau, was to “humanize” Mapplethorpe for the uninitiated heading into the show, which was paired with a selection of vintage prints from a collection that his onetime lover, Sam Wagstaff, donated to the museum years ago. (It was the bequest that created the Getty’s photography department.)

Humanize? They don’t get more human, or more sensitive to forces that beguile us, than Robert Mapplethorpe, bullwhips and biceps and all. That much was clear the following evening at LACMA’s advance screening of the digestible Look at the Pictures, a documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato premiering tonight on HBO. Perhaps most surprising is its account of Mapplethorpe’s domestic sex life—pretty tame, according to his former boyfriends.

Since then I’ve been trying to work out why it, and two perfectly respectable exhibitions, should leave me feeling depressed. But that was it—they were so respectable! Too much was left unseen and unsaid.

Left: Getty photography curator Paul Martineau and LACMA chief photography curator Britt Salvesen. Right: Former Mapplethorpe model Dovanna Pagowski and her daughter Camille.

Because the show at LACMA, organized by its chief photography curator, Britt Salvesen, included a greater variety of Mapplethorpe’s output—not just the usual photographs of Patti Smith but also some wacky early sculpture, jewelry, drawings, films, and such memorabilia from the archive as his membership card to the Mineshaft—it had the greater interest, and drew an even larger, resolutely art-world (rather than strictly photo) crowd on opening night.

Probably, Smith would have become a star without Mapplethorpe’s help. But nowhere in either show, nor in the film, was there any indication that he had produced the 7-inch vinyl on Mer (his own label) that jumpstarted her career. And nowhere was there any indication that he had ever photographed children, naked and clothed. “It’s an odd thing,” said attorney John Thomas, of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. “You can show fist-fucking and no one blinks. But put a naked baby on a beach and you’re a pornographer.”

In an election year when the radicals are no longer artists but dick-swinging politicians, living artists would be wise to think carefully about the future condition of their works. Meanwhile, a new generation can get at least a taste of a vital, irreplaceable, divalike personality. As Edward Mapplethorpe, also a photographer said, “I miss him every day.”

For additional coverage of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, please see Vince Aletti’s preview in our January print issue here.

Left: Filmmaker Randy Barbato. Right: Artists Mary Weatherford and Mungo Thomson with dealer Frank Elbaz.

Left: Art historian Carey Lovelace with artists Michelle Stuart and Mary Heilmann. Right: Art attorney and Mapplethorpe Foundation board member Eric Johnson.

Left: Artists Keith Sonnier and Jackie Winsor. Right: Dealer Erin Manns, artist Doug Aitken, and School of Doodle cofounder Elise van Middelem.

Left: Photographer Lynn Davis and former Mapplethorpe subject Robert Sherman. Right: Lisa Marie and Brian English.

Left: Sam Wagstaff biographer Philip Gefter. Right: Harvard Art Museums print curator Susan Dackerman and LA MoCA chief curator Helen Molesworth.

Left: Dealers Mary Kelly and Sean Kelly. Right: Dealer Marc Payot.

Left: Artist Alessandro Pessoli and dealer Anton Kern. Right: Artist Donald Baechler.

Left: Dealer Adrian Rosenfeld and artist Conor Fields. Right: Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal.

Left: Tom of Finland Foundation cofounder and president Durk Dehner and its vice-president S. R. Sharp. RIght: Collector Maurice Marciano.