Both Sides of Robert Mapplethorpe

Published December 11, 2013

“He broke down the doors, he broke down the barriers, he opened up the dialogue, he opened up the conversation about what was acceptable and wasn’t acceptable,” says Sean Kelly, owner of the eponymous gallery, of the work of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe, longtime friend and confidante of Patti Smith, and touchstone of a certain type of freewheeling downtown New York bohemia, emerged out of the ’70s to rattle the art world with his stylized black-and-white photographs of S&M acts, hustlers, classical male and female nudes, floral still lifes, and celebrity portraiture. He died from complications from AIDS in 1989. Twenty-five years after his seminal traveling exhibition, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” which gave rise to an obscenity trial and ignited a national dialogue on freedom of expression in the arts, Sean Kelly Gallery recognizes this critical juncture in the artist’s work and will commemorate the anniversary with “Saints and Sinners,” opening this Friday.

“In the intervening 25 years, I think [Mapplethorpe]’s gone through a number of different manifestations or reiterations or presences and been reinvented on numerous occasions,” Kelly reflects. “Saints and Sinners” brings together 54 silver gelatin images, some of which have rarely been exhibited, and puts them into 27 pairings exploring the titular theme of the exhibition. “It’s a very speculative question. We’re asking you to consider pairings of works, but really make your own mind up about if there is a moral to them. Is one fetish more acceptable than the other?” Kelly says. With such juxtapositions as a classically posed man in a rubber suit with a tube coming out of his mouth, matched with a woman in a high-heeled shoe, or two stark portraits—the first, of a young man submerged in water, and the second, of an old woman, eyes closed, gasping for breath—it’s left to the viewer to decide who is the saint and who is the sinner, lending an endlessly open, personal interpretation to Mapplethorpe’s multifaceted practice. 

“There’ve been a number of exhibitions in the last decade, which have really positioned Mapplethorpe as having a very classical eye,” Kelly says. “Those exhibitions have tended to focus on the very classical images. I think that what we’ve done is we’ve said, ‘Yes, he’s a very classic photographer, but, is a fetish photograph as compositionally classic as a still life with flowers? It’s very clear that the argument is that his eye is consistent.”

Not just consistent, but continually relevant as well: Mapplethorpe will also be the subject of upcoming exhibitions at OHWOW in Los Angeles this February, and at Paris’ Grand Palais in March.

“SAINTS AND SINNERS” OPENS THIS SATURDAY, DECEMBER 14, AT SEAN KELLY GALLERY, 475 TENTH AVE, NEW YORK, WITH AN OPENING RECEPTION THIS FRIDAY, DECEMBER 13 FROM 6-8 PM. OHWOW WILL PRESENT “ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW” FROM FEBRUARY 28 THROUGH MARCH 29, 2014. “ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE” WILL BE ON VIEW AT PARIS’ GRAND PALAIS FROM MARCH 26 THROUGH JULY 14, 2014.

ABOVE: ROBERT MAPPLETHORPLE, ALICE NEEL, 1984. COPYRIGHT ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION, USED WITH PERMISSION COURTESY OF SEAN KELLY, NEW YORK; ROBERT MAPPLETHORPLE, JAVIER, 1985. COPYRIGHT ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION, USED WITH PERMISSION COURTESY OF SEAN KELLY, NEW YORK; ROBERT MAPPLETHORPLE, BRUCE MAILMAN, 1981. COPYRIGHT ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION, USED WITH PERMISSION COURTESY OF SEAN KELLY, NEW YORK; ROBERT MAPPLETHORPLE, CHRISTOPHER HOLLY, 1980. COPYRIGHT ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION, USED WITH PERMISSION COURTESY OF SEAN KELLY, NEW YORK.