New York

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe was on my review list about three years ago, showing at a crummy alternative space in SoHo. His medium of expression was photography, but all I could see were the frames. I remember one with a Chinese red lacquer frame that continued on and on at regular intervals off the righthand side, the frame repeated as spaced bars painted to simulate the rainbow. The penises and buttocks didn’t seem to the point somehow (once you’ve seen one . . .). I’m not being coy; I’m dead serious. My honest response to Mapplethorpe’s calculated attempt to show the unshowable so that, coerced by his images, I would be forced to speak (write) the unspeakable (unwritable), was to resist the manipulation. (Might this deferral in the long run give more pleasure?) I did speak the unspeakable; I unspoke the provocation by admiring the frames rather than the ostensible “art.”

The latest show, at a gallery rapidly becoming known as a backdrop for big fashion feature layouts, is “uptown” in every sense of the word. Anything but shabby. It doesn’t change my first impression. Mapplethorpe is into frames: each image is meticulously framed and matted, so perfectly as to suggest the ultimate repression, the limit and binding element, the restrictive edge from which the image cannot move, hemmed in by doubling silk mats. Repressive and beautiful. Cowboy is matted in gorgeous black silk with a sliver-thin red silk mat in between. Ron Simms and Babies Breath, Mapplethorpe’s attempts at devastating innocence, are matted off-center in the upper left-hand corner, just like Degas throwing his real subject out beyond the image. Caroline Herrera has not one but two highly refined, polished frames. My knowledge of furniture is relatively limited, but the wood looked expensive: rosewood, ebony, mahogany.

Mapplethorpe’s progress since his first show has been considerable. His professionalism and the journey to respectability have allowed him even more latitude in expressing his idea of the art of framing. The new twists in the chain are the use of colored plexiglass and mirrors. Philip Johnson gets not one but two images, one a blow-up of the other, barely recognizable behind smoky brown plexi. Wouldn’t you say that this may be a comment on modern architecture? (I often thought of Don Judd while walking through this show—the strict, inhibiting frames and box shapes filled in manipulations of shiny, reflective, translucent, “beautiful” materials). Jim, Sausalito interests viewers with its striking red mirror given the same size and emphasis as Jim’s photograph. But mirrors are very big this season. Aphrodite has one under each of her three panels. Helmut gets them too, four of them, each a rectangular area around the sides of the photographic paper, and each with its own lovely frame. Frank Diaz brandishes a kitchen utensil toward the mirror off to his right. Most unfortunately, I am a little too short, so the aim of this instrument went right over my head. Was this near miss a metaphor for something? More interesting for me was that, as I moved from any mirror to the “photograph,” there was no change. And rightly so. The glass over the photographs reflected my face just as clearly. I kept seeing myself, which is the reason why anyone would want to buy one of these things.

When by chance I caught a glimpse of Mapplethorpe’s “subjects,” they were also looking at themselves in the mirror of the camera. Their projection included only their own self-image. These people look as if they would stare at a real-life person as if he were a camera, a mirror. “How do I look?” each asks. How do I appear? Properly groomed? All in place? Giving off the right aura?

Carnation, Gardenia and Mirror: the flowers act as frames for the mirror; they’re displaced—the mirror’s central here, the centerpiece. The “image” is really the flowery, florid, ultimately excessive decorative ornament filling up the peripheral space next to the really arty, useful object, the mirror. The “pieces” are the people looking into the mirror. And Mapplethorpe, practical businessman that he is, gives you flowers that will never wilt, never need replacing, will last a lifetime.

Has any of this shocked you? I doubt it. So I wonder why the gallery put up the warning “Some of the material is not appropriate for children.” (One wants to ask: what children? Battered children? Nine-year-old heroin addicts? Children raped by their fathers?) What could anyone find objectionable about these delightfully framed mirrors? Some have expressed displeasure with Mapplethorpe’s “message,” but I find “it” very pretty. Can’t someone find him a nice job doing ad work for a well-paying, exclusive department store, fast, please?

Jeff Perone