The works of iconic and controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe have continued to hold relevance in the art world decades after his untimely passing. The artist, like so many cultural renegades of the 1980s art world, was taken too soon, his life cut short by the AIDS crisis; March 9th marked the thirtieth anniversary of his death. His works have endured thanks to collectors and international museums, as well as the efforts of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. Aspects of his life have been memorialized by former lover Patti Smith in her critically acclaimed, bestselling book Just Kids.
Through efforts like these, and through other resurgences of the artist’s expansive body of work, Mapplethorpe has found a new audience in a younger generation. His works revolving around BDSM culture, nudity, and homoeroticism have impacted contemporary values, even if we don’t realize it; the artist helped shape the conversation around public funding for edgy work, and he also eroded conservative values around sexuality and its representation in art.
In 2017, Mapplethorpe appeared on our radar again thanks to a controversial line by fashion designer Raf Simmons. Now his work is being celebrated once again thanks to an innovative and multi-disciplinary show in Naples, Italy. On now until April 8th, Choreography for an Exhibition is organized by the Museo Madre in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York. Over 16o works will be on display; according to a press release, these will be presented alongside archaeological, ancient, and modern pieces, presenting his oftentimes shocking imagery in juxtaposition and harmony with works steeped in Neoclassicism and Romanticism. In addition, there is a site-specific dance program commissioned to celebrate the performative and physical aspects of Mapplethorpe’s photography.
Visitors can expect to find work divided into three sections, each dedicated to a different phase of Mapplethorpe’s career. The first, “Ouverture,” includes portraits of his two great muses: Patti Smith, of course, and Samuel Wagstaff Jr. Here their images face one another, perhaps a nod to the complex entanglement of the two individuals with the man behind the camera; Wagstaff Jr. was also a lover (and life companion) of Mapplethorpe’s and, according to The New York Times, referred to the artist as his “shy pornographer.” The man, who was twenty-five years his senior, was also an art collector and served as patron to both Mapplethorpe and Smith as she grew her career as a punk-rock poet. Love triangle? That’s one term for it! Their lives were intricately intertwined, and this display is the perfect entry into the exhibit. Other images in this section are of dancers, athletes, body-builders, and models — the human bodies that captured Mapplethorpe’s attention and lens are on display in visceral, highly stylized black-and-white.
Smith and Wagstaff aren’t the only prominent faces one can expect to see at the exhibit. Mapplethorpe rubbed elbows with some of the greatest cultural figures of his day, evidenced by a star-studded portfolio of portraits; visitors can expect to see Susan Sontag, Laurie Anderson, Debbie Harry, Louise Bourgeois, Leo Castelli, Andy Warhol, Lucio Amelio, Phillip Glass, and Robert Wilson.
The dance element of the exhibit feels especially relevant thanks to Mapplethorpe’s photographic capturing of legendary choreographers Lucinda Childs and Bill T. Jones, as well as the dancers of the NYC Ballet. In a beautiful homage, the figures of dancers are lifted from canvas and into the three-dimensional world thanks to site-specific performances that draw from the artist’s work, with pieces from internationally renowned names like Olivier Dubois (France), Vadim Stein (Ukraine), and Matteo Stella Dance Arts (Italy). For these, the central room of the museum has been filled with red carpets and straddles the line between a theatre and the space outside them — that symbolic red carpet populated by paparazzi and stars. On the walls of this transformed space are self-portraits of the artist, those in which he specifically sought to explore his fluid sexual identity.
Another section anointed the “(Un)Dressing Room” allows visitors to enter into the “backstage world,” so to speak, of Mapplethorpe’s life in the studio. Beside it, the “X (Dark) Room” is reserved for the artist’s most erotic images, including the “X Portfolio,” formerly censored.
This is not the first time Mapplethorpe’s life and work have been connected with Naples; in 1984, during his first solo exhibition in the changing city, the artist captured several images of Naples in an effort to explore, according to press materials, its “contradictory humanity and its tragic sensuality.” Those images are on proud display in Choreography for an Exhibition.
Time is running out to catch this innovative presentation of the works of one of the American art world’s most complex figures. For more information, visit the museum website.
Robert Mapplethorpe. Choreography for an Exhibition
Installation view Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina.
Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee. Foto © Amedeo Benestante
All works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission