In our society, Robert Mapplethorpe has become the essential “gay photographer.” His homoerotic pictures, which still disturb many people, make no concessions to the closeted: They are free of the sneaky, furtive, and abashed. His followers spread a seductive version of his style throughout the land (the fashion houses sure owe him), and his death—of AIDS, in 1989, at the age of 42—gives his abbreviated life a symbolic aura. Not surprisingly, his iconic position strongly influences how we see his photographs: He is both overrated and underrated. The best thing about “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints,” which recently opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is that it lifts the gauzy filters. It treats Mapplethorpe as an artist, not just a gay artist, and situates him in the great tradition of classical art.
But this provocative exhibit also provides unsatisfying answers to the complex question it raises: What kind of contemporary classicist is Mapplethorpe? In their presentation, the co-organizers, Germano Celant of the Guggenheim and Arkady Ippolitov of the Hermitage, juxtapose examples of Mapplethorpe’s photography with earlier examples of classically inspired art, including a number of sculptures. They strongly emphasize Mapplethorpe’s relationship to Mannerism, the style that emerged after the High Renaissance. In contrast to the harmonious style of Raphael, the Mannerists, drawing particularly upon the later work of Michelangelo, emphasized theatrical exaggeration—contorted poses, elongated bodies, rippling muscles, and razzle-dazzle compositions. The curators particularly focus upon a sometimes bizarre stem of this already eccentric style, the Flemish woodcuts and engravings of Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617) and his followers. A print of a Roman abducting a Sabine woman could be juxtaposed, for example, with Mapplethorpe’s depiction of a dancing couple, Thomas and Dovanna.
There is certainly a Mannerist aspect to Mapplethorpe’s sensibility. He relishes extraordinary musculature, especially on a black man. He’s taken by melodrama, sometimes to the point of kitsch, often extravagantly juxtaposing black and white. In Thomas and Dovanna, for example, he poses a naked black man dancing balletically with a white, and white-gowned, woman. Like many Mannerists, he’s erotically playful, bedazzled, aroused. The flowers in Mapplethorpe’s photographs become dreamy genitals; Dovanna’s flung-back head, in the picture of the dancing couple, rhymes with the masculine thrust. What’s surprising about the show, however, is how often Mapplethorpe images differ from the Flemish prints. Yes, some pairings are similar in spirit (such as the dancing-couple juxtaposition). But many aren’t. There is also much that isn’t Mannerist about Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe often dreams of stillness, balance, and harmony. You do not have to look far to find the shadow of Raphael or Canova in his work, artists who have little in common with the Mannerists. Mapplethorpe does not share Mannerism’s love of twistiness and the upended. In his pictures of a man inside a circular form, for example, the figure seems to be stopping the wheel instead of, as in the juxtaposed Mannerist print, flying off into space. And Thomas and Dovanna are coming to a full stop in their dance. Although Mapplethorpe made some wild, hothouse photographs (most of which are not in this show), he does not as a rule appear as fanciful or downright goofy as many of these Flemish artists do; he may have loved muscles, but he did not turn flesh into rippling armor or crowd his space with fantastical concoctions. Many of his nudes and portraits seem to reach past Eros to a still and otherworldly perfection.
The “classical” is an inheritance to be argued about and fought over. It does not represent any one spirit or outlook. “Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition” would have been a stronger show if, instead of putting so much stress on Mannerism, it had emphasized the contradictions within the larger classical tradition—because Mapplethorpe himself seems torn by them. There’s something poignant about this tension in his sensibility. In his search for perfection, he could not, as the great artists of the past did, depend upon an authentically powerful classical culture. The Mannerist element in his art sometimes looks compensatory, as if he feared perfection was now an empty vessel—and idolatrous exaggeration and a heightened aestheticism were the only way he could attain something extraordinary. In the year he died, he photographed the statue of a languorous sleeping Cupid who’s all curves. In the upper left of the image, against the black background, he placed an abstract geometric form—a perfectly white square. Is that what’s left of Cupid’s dream?