New York

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Miller Gallery

The efflorescence of “gay art” in recent seasons has taken a number of forms: political agitprop, neo-Conceptualist critique, and, often, straightforward representation. Not surprisingly, this last category probably has the greatest appeal for a specialized and yet general audience: gay men and lesbians who are largely unfamiliar with the tangled determinations that inform contemporary art, but who know a cute butt when they see one. It might be argued that positioning such explicit representations within precincts not traditionally overly hospitable to them is a political achievement in itself, as the images bring the reality of our pleasures into the clear light of day (or at least the dramatizing glow of gallery track lighting). But is it interesting as art? To eyes accustomed to a more complicated reception of images, bare representations of flowering genitalia and Michelangelesque torsos are bound to seem comically naive. Chances are that if you’ve seen a few penises in your life, seeing a few more tacked up on a gallery wall isn’t going to be a very special experience.

Robert Mapplethorpe remains the exemplary gay male artist of our time, both for the elegant forthrightness he brought to previously unmentionable subject matter and for his unfortunate role as the first martyr in the ongoing NEA farrago. Love him or loathe him, Mapplethorpe’s work is necessarily a crux for the history and theory of gay representations.

The early work exhibited here spans a brief period of four years and though much of the stuff is sweet and affable, from the point of view of connoisseurship, it is plainly “student work.” The bulk of the pieces consist of fetishistic bits of male lingerie stretched over wooden, stretcherlike supports, and lots of campy collages of cheesy gay porn. What these otherwise minor pieces bring to mind is the startling fact that some twenty years later gay artists are dwelling, no less obsessively, on the same iconography (the earliest works in this show are dated 1970). If nothing else this show should serve as an antidote to historical amnesia; perhaps we will even be spared another round of tired homages to Bruce of Los Angeles–style beefcake.

The later works exhibited here document Mapplethorpe’s transition to the mature phase of his career that engendered his most “shocking” photographs. Self-Portrait, 1974, is a unique gelatin print matted within one of Mapplethorpe’s trademark fussy frames. The artist, naked from the waist up, clings to a bare white wall for solace (or support). His face is a mask of heavy-lidded sensual introversion. A leather arm-bracelet provides the obligatory note of S/M decor. All the elements are present here of one brand of gay sensibility—a sensibility that combines the extremities of the sexual outlaw and the niceties of the design queen.

David Rimanelli