The outward focus of today’s culture war is what Muslim women should be permitted to wear on their heads or at the beach. In the late 1980s, it was whether a publicly funded museum could show art that some elected officials considered obscene.
Robert Mapplethorpe was a key figure in that fracas, which peaked when Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art backed out of a touring exhibition of the American photographer’s works, and police raided Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Cente (CAC) for going ahead with it. The radioactivity of those events, which included an obscenity charge against CAC director Dennis Barrie, clouded discussion about Mapplethorpe for years afterward.
Now that we have burkinis to quarrel about, the art tempests of a quarter-century ago seem almost quaint. But Mapplethorpe’s photos still have the power to startle and even to shock, which is why the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts put part of its retrospective Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe behind barriers of smoked glass.
Mapplethorpe, who died at 42, shortly before the Corcoran cancelled his show in 1989, would probably have been pleased to know that some of his work is still hot to handle. He often said, when talking about his shots of faceless men encased in vinyl or fisting each other, that part of what thrilled him about the gay porn magazines he saw while growing up in Queens, N.Y., was that their explicit contents were slightly hidden: inside a plastic cover, with black bars across the models’ eyes.
The current campaign to reset the discussion about Mapplethorpe began a decade ago with a couple of serious shows in Europe, and continues with the MMFA’s iteration of a joint double exhibition by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, drawn from a huge cache of works acquired by those institutions in 2011. An HBO documentary about the Getty/LACMA shows aired last spring, and production has started on a Mapplethorpe biopic, directed by Ondi Timoner and starring Matt Smith.