Out of the Closet?
LACMA’s plan to open a show featuring Robert Mapplethorpe’s gay sadomasochistic photographs two weeks before Election Day proves we’ve come a long way—maybe
For the last two decades, the graphic images in Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” were rarely shown in U.S. art institutions, even as they packed museum galleries in Europe, Asia, and beyond.
After the 1990 obscenity trial in Cincinnati, some American museum leaders undoubtedly thought the work was too hot to handle. But the artist’s low profile in his native country was also the result of a longtime strategy by his own foundation, which nixed several U.S. museums’ proposals for Mapplethorpe shows out of concern they would be sensationalized. “It was too overwhelming,” says Mapplethorpe Foundation president Michael Ward Stout. “People were losing track of the fact he was a serious artist.”
Now, two decades after it was denounced by Jesse Helms in Congress and almost sent a museum director to jail, the “X Portfolio” is finally coming out. Beginning October 21, in a space beyond immediate sightlines where labels note the content may not be appropriate for everyone, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present each work in Mapplethorpe’s controversial series, including a picture of a finger inserted into a penis, several scenes of objects being inserted into an anus, and two portraits of nude children. Two companion series will also be on view: The Y Portfolio (1978), featuring flower still lifes, and the Z Portfolio (1981), portraits of nude black males.
Today’s audience, accustomed to contemporary museum fare like Paul McCarthy, not to mention cable and the Internet, won’t find Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic images particularly shocking, predicts LACMA director Michael Govan. “The context has changed,” he says.
Read more in my first post on the NEW ARTnews blog!
THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES. JOINTLY ACQUIRED BY THE J. PAUL GETTY TRUST AND THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART. PARTIAL GIFT OF THE ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION; PARTIAL PURCHASE WITH FUNDS PROVIDED BY THE DAVID GEFFEN FOUNDATION AND THE J. PAUL GETTY TRUST. ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION.