With a Robert Mapplethorpe show recently opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, we turned to the ARTnews archives and collected excerpts from reviews of shows mounted during the artist’s lifetime. Included are musings on some of Mapplethorpe’s early sculptures and photographs of Patti Smith, Holly Solomon, and others, as well as a review of Mapplethorpe’s photobook Lady: Lisa Lyon, which included images he took of a woman wrestler. (Like writers at many other publications during the 1980s, ARTnews critics tended to avoid dealing with some of the more controversial aspects of the artist’s oeuvre.) Excerpts from the past follow below. —Alex Greenberger
“Reviews and Previews”
By Michael André
“Recent Religious and Ritual Art” (Buecker & Harpsichords): Robert Mapplethorpe, Lenny Salem and Royce Dendler are visionaries who stumble at times into the slapstick or insane. Mapplethorpe spread a layer of nails over the bottom of a washtub, placed a crucifix on the nails, filled the tub with water and added apples. A related sculpture consists of a crucifix attached to a stool-sized nail keg placed before the door of a men’s room.
By Gerrit Henry
Robert Mapplethorpe, whose works were shown at the Holly Solomon Gallery, is a celebrity photographer probably best known for the cover photo on Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, in which the rocker appears, grim smile, hooded eyelids, tie loosened, jacket thrown over her shoulder, looking like Arthur Rimbaud by way of Frank Sinatra. Mapplethorpe has photographed other “in” celebrities—painter Brice Marden, David Hockney and Henry Geldzahler, gallery owner Solomon herself—with a similar eye to the more outlandish sides of their natures, which the photographer has apparently encouraged them to display. Mapplethorpe is an excellent technician, particularly adept at creating light effects that are the visual equivalents of certain psychological states induced by cocaine. With persistence, he should shape up as the Richard Avedon of the ’80s, by which time one suspects, the public will have become as idolatrous of freaks as they once were of sex symbols.
“Portraits of a Lady”
By Emily Simson
This year there can be no ignoring Robert Mapplethorpe. At the age of 36, he has just had three concurrent exhibitions in New York City alone and has traveled through Germany and to Paris, Tokyo and Toronto, where his photographs were shown in solo exhibitions. He has been included in four group shows and has recently published a new book, his first full-length photographic study of a single subject—Lady: Lisa Lyon (Viking, $31.25 cloth, $16.95 paper).
In the past Mapplethorpe has shocked his audience with explicit photographic depictions of sexual subjects, such as graphic views of black male bodies. He has photographed actors and artists, children and aristocrats. He has produced stunning images of flowers. But his photography has evaded classification. As Mapplethorpe said in a recent interview, “As a photographer I would like to be able to throw my esthetic in as many different directions as is possible without ever being one thing. I don’t want to be a fashion photographer. I don’t want to be a journalist. I don’t want to be . . . I just want to do it all.”
Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre can, however, be divided into three areas of concentration: erotic subjects, portraits and still lifes. Lady may be considered a conglomeration of all three. The book’s 116 duotones feature Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion, in a myriad of poses and costumes. Mapplethorpe photographs her as a high-fashion model, a lace-clad temptress, a Greek goddess in silk and pearls, a leathered and silver-studded S&M queen, a muscled athlete. These diverse characters are presented in a consistently tight large-format style, a consistently formalist esthetic. Mapplethorpe’s method of working obliterates grain, amplifies detail and extends the black-and-white tonal range. The book’s coherence may be due in part to Mapplethorpe’s technical acuity. However, the latitude of his talent is revealed in Lady’s sequential photographs.
“New York Reviews: Robert Mapplethorpe at Barbara Gladstone”
By John Sturman
In terms of content, the show held no surprises. Mapplethorpe, who achieved commercial prominence about a decade ago with his photos of pop celebrities such as Patti Smith and Marianne Faithfull, remains a compelling portraitist. Included here were striking 1983 studies of Cindy Sherman and Donald Sutherland. And one of the Season in Hell photos—Gun Blast (1985)—reaffirmed Mapplethorpe’s power to depict the violent or the shocking in a clean, controlled way. But sharp, cold, almost clinical photos of flowers and more sensual images of nude or scantily clad males have long been part of Mapplethorpe’s repertoire, and many of the works on display were perhaps too much in keeping with his previous explorations to be really challenging or satisfying.