Critics’ Picks

Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, 1980, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16".

Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, 1980, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16".

New York

Robert Mapplethorpe

Gladstone Gallery | West 24th St
515 West 24th Street
March 12–April 24, 2021

Photographs of orchids paired with nude bodies, genitalia juxtaposed against horses, plants with rarely exhibited Polaroids, portraits of Patti Smith and interior decor—Arthur Jafa’s curation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work reframes the artist’s well-circulated imagery and motifs within the broader scope of his oeuvre. Jafa sheds new light on the canonical artist through a simple act: by arranging Mapplethorpe’s more familiar prints with those that are rarely seen. The works are placed so closely together that they need only whisper to hear one another. It’s a subtle conversation, and one Jafa has made possible by moving away from the all-too-easy and frequently relied upon categories Mapplethorpe’s photographs are typically understood in terms of, such as the artist’s interpretation of the male body, the queer gaze, or his particular interpretations of Blackness. Instead, Jafa takes a more formalist approach to organizing Mapplethorpe’s work, attending to color, shape, and light. This arrangement prompts viewers who are familiar with Jafa’s art to see Mapplethorpe’s pictures through a new lens, as part of Jafa’s own found-image practice.

Rather than the high-speed, fragmentary poetry of Jafa’s APEX, 2013, or Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, 2016—what one might characterize as “Jafa time”—the stillness of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and their immediate legibility in the gallery allows the viewer to shift the frame speed, creating a kind of spatialized montage. Walk slowly, and you’ll experience Mapplethorpe’s photographs as still images; walk faster, and the line between what is cinema and what is photography will blur; walk faster still, and suddenly the boundary between Jafa’s and Mapplethorpe’s visions is muddled. Though each of the works themselves warrant and ask for the individual attention of the viewer, Jafa’s cinematic hand is persuasive in its call to move quickly and quietly, to use the space and time of the exhibition as tools for reading the photographs, to consider the photographer as a latent filmmaker.