New York

Robert Mapplethorpe

Whitney Museum of American Art

A certain smart elegance—intense but never forced, aggressive, on the verge of being cloying but rarely falling over into sentiment or pretense—has always been the hallmark of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. No doubt it is this quality, in part the product of an extreme attention to craft (evidenced above all in Mapplethorpe’s frames, themselves exquisite objects, and in some cases even becoming the work itself) that has made him so successful working for magazines selling just this kind of hip elegance. In one of the catalogue essays for this show, Ingrid Sischy describes Mapplethorpe as quintessentially a society photographer, using “society” in a general sense; whether one grants his work this wider relevance, Mapplethorpe is certainly a worthy successor to such earlier purveyors of elegance as Robert Demachy and Cecil Beaton. Whether depicting a languidly drooping lily (in a dramatic, demurely Modern gesture, the lily is placed before an intensely colored geometric backdrop) or an exquisitely maintained socialite (for example, his portrait of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, 1987), Mapplethorpe brings a deceptively simple—and therefore all the more successful—style to the portraitist’s familiar task of glorifying his sitter.

But in itself, elegance of this sort can be simply nostalgic or conservative, harking back to an arcadia of a more mannered and moneyed time—the usual boring voyeuristic yearning for class and privilege that has now become an industry. What differentiates Mapplethorpe’s work most forcefully from the smart sycophancy implicit in the notion of a “society” photographer is his pictures’ mirror world of intense, outlaw sexuality, one that partakes of the formal qualities of his portraits and flower photographs while rejecting the social context they imply. This too is a form of nostalgia, but one that yearns for ideals of the human body, of physical rather than social form. (It’s appropriate that the photograph on the cover of the show’s catalogue is Apollo, 1988, a closeup of a delicate marble statue of the Classical embodiment of male beauty.) As in Diane Arbus’ work, there is a sense of the photographer projecting his fantasies onto the world. Sometimes the unabashed fascination with physical beauty evidenced in his pictures, whether of black men, women body-builders, or a calla lily, can seem almost laughable in its intensity. But Mapplethorpe presents his subjects with such seriousness and virtuosic formal command that his work compels attention and respect.

In his best photographs Mapplethorpe brings together the mirror worlds he depicts, combining his mastery of forms (both social and esthetic) with his erotic obsessions; his easy elegance with an intensely charged sensuousness. In these works it becomes apparent that the source of his elegance is in fact his fascination with, and passionate devotion to, physicality, to the beauty of flesh, of the material substance of the world. (The photograph, too, is a physical object, with its own silvery fleshiness.) In Man in Polyester Suit, 1980, for example, the pendulous weight of a black model’s penis is given a complex social significance by the man’s three-piece suit, normally a sign that all social boundaries are firmly in place, here violated in a direct and unabashed manner. But underlying the social narrative of the pose is Mapplethorpe’s celebration of the fleshiness of the world: the smooth repulsive sheen of the polyester as much as the glistening charcoal heft of the penis, both transformed into the silvery tones of the photograph. It is in such pointed dramas of convention and disruption, such mannered passions, that Mapplethorpe transcends the role of court limner that he plays so well, but with such knowing distance.

Charles Hagen