Robert Mapplethorpe, Frogs, 1984, gelatin silver print, 20 × 16". © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Frogs, 1984, gelatin silver print, 20 × 16". © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe, Frogs, 1984, gelatin silver print, 20 × 16". © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Alison Jacques has represented the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe in the UK since 1999 and has showcased his work many times, often with the help of guest curators who either played an important role in the artist’s life or were influenced by his photographs. Among them was model David Croland, Mapplethorpe’s first long-term boyfriend, who curated “Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Show” in 2013. Croland’s portrait, enlarged to more than eleven feet high, welcomed visitors to this recent show, curated by another notorious photographer, eighteen years Mapplethorpe’s junior, Juergen Teller.

Like Mapplethorpe, Teller is renowned as a portraitist, often capturing celebrities in an unexpected light, both literally and metaphorically. If we compare the practices of the two men, Mapplethorpe seems almost traditional in his chiaroscuro depictions of nudes photographed against a neutral background. His fascination with classical sculpture, expressed in several of his photographic series, was marked here by the presence of The Sluggard, 1978, showing a statue of a young man who stretches his arms as if he has just awakened. Teller, on the other hand, catches transitory motion using a strong flash, which creates his signature effect of overexposure. His art thrives not in the studio, but in hotel rooms or his subjects’ apartments. What unites the two photographers is an unmistakable joie de vivre and the electrifying relationships they managed to establish with their models. A very rare energy saturates their photographs, and this is what seduces us.

It was his fascination with Patti Smith that first drew Teller to Mapplethorpe’s work. For this show, Teller selected a black-and-white Polaroid, Patti Smith, 1973, showing Smith pressing her breasts against a window, with a playful spot of light on her upper lip. As I overheard someone saying at the opening of “Teller on Mapplethorpe,” this could be one of the most erotic images of Smith ever to have been seen in public.

To make his selection, Teller worked closely with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, gaining access to the artist’s archives. He’s chosen images that are characteristic of the artist’s style, yet outside the canon of his best-known works. Gelatin silver prints of different sizes, as well as Polaroid pictures, were neatly framed in black and mostly displayed in trios. Towering over them all was another massive blow-up, this one showing Marty Gibson, a model, posing nude on a beach. Waves crash behind him. He stands with his arms spread and his penis erect, visibly at ease in front of Mapplethorpe’s camera. On the opposite wall, Teller had placed a photograph of a small, naked girl, Eva Amurri, 1988, which offered a contrastingly different experience. This child, Susan Sarandon’s daughter, today an actress and a mother herself, is seen covering her private parts with both hands. Her gesture turns her vulnerable figure into a perfect personification of demureness, a feature otherwise rarely seen in this photographer’s world. Her image was flanked by Pods, 1985, and Frogs, 1984. This grouping showed not only that the photographer applied the same attention to the qualities of humans, animals, and plants—their various shapes and surfaces, soft, spiky, hairy, uneven—but also that his subjects can be seen as symbols. Teller’s selection unveiled a mysterious quality to Mapplethorpe’s seemingly blatant frontal depictions.

Sylwia Serafinowicz