Art Doc of the Week | Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

“I came from the suburbs.  It was a very safe environment. It was a good place to leave.” – Robert Mapplethorpe

The best thing about Fenton Bailey’s and Randy Barbato’s documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is that it doesn’t shy away from either the presence of the asshole in Mapplethorpe’s work (in which it’s just one tool in his arsenal of confrontational, subversive art) or the fact that the man himself was one. Charming, handsome, magnetic, sexy, hugely gifted, and grotesquely ambitious – but an asshole. He’s quoted at one point as saying, “I think life’s about using people and being used.” That the film richly fleshes out the controversial, iconic photographer without downplaying, fetishizing or excusing his dark and often unappealing complexity is one measure of its success. That it does all this while continually bringing the conversation back to insightful commentary about the art – which is generously displayed – is an unqualified success.

Robert Mapplethorpe The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Pictures opens with file footage of the late Sen. Jesse Helms grandstanding before congress and TV cameras, ranting on the senate floor about “Robert Mapplethorpe, a known homosexual who died of AIDS,” and his “obscene” art. It’s a smart launching point, as one of the most important aspects of Mapplethorpe’s legacy beyond his art itself is the unwitting part he and his work played in providing ammunition for right-wing culture wars still raging. As the film unfolds, his older sister Nancy Rooney fills in the family’s suburban, Roman Catholic background, situating her brother in two clichéd but ever potent foundational streams for artistic rebellion.

A detailed overview of his time at Pratt Institute, where he studied art and hated his photography classes, unearths seeds of attitudes and practices (both artistic and personal) that would flourish in his later professional life. It’s in this section of the film that the viewer also notices that co-directors Bailey and Barbato (whose previous documentaries include Party Monster and The Eyes of Tammy Faye) sometimes let their film’s visuals approximate Mapplethorpe’s trademarked crisp, clean style in unforced homage to his artistry.

William Burroughs, 1979

William Burroughs, 1979

Throughout the film, the camera is positioned and holds for the viewer to take in the huge expanse of Mapplethorpe’s groundbreaking work – from rare photos to the infamous; from flowers to fisting to celebrity portraits. Recordings of Mapplethorpe and one-time muse and girlfriend Patti Smith are played throughout. We’re given smart, revealing interviews with critics (Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello), photo subjects (Deborah Harry; several former lovers), and friends (Fran Lebowitz; ‘70s gay porn icon Peter Berlin; fashion icon Carolina Herrera). Edward, his younger brother and an artist in his own right, shares many memories clearly rooted in love for his elder sibling, but they’re marbled with emotional abuse Robert doled out even as he was dying, and that still wounds Edward.

Deborah Harry, 1978

Deborah Harry, 1978

As the deeply intertwined personal life/professional life narrative is given shape, with the opportunistic aspect of Mapplethorpe’s approach to his love and sex lives shown as a building block of his artistry – his careerist choice of powerful art world figure Sam Wagstaff as a lover; the racial fetish that underscored his relationships with black male lovers (“He was looking for the perfect black penis,” biographer Patricia Morrisroe says at one point”) – there are also many moments of organic humor. An old college friend tells of sharing LSD with Robert in their youth and, while discussing the side-effect of memory loss, loses his train of thought. A priest whose insightful connecting of dots between the not-so-sub subtext of sexual violence in Catholic lore and the sexual violence of Mapplethorpe’s work hastily adds that he is not into S&M.

Thomas, 1987

Thomas, 1987

If Pictures drops the ball anywhere, it’s in its failure draw a line from the massive controversy that surrounded Mapplethorpe’s work right after his death (it became one of the oars the rightwing used to steer public opinion and bludgeon dissent) to the volatile political and cultural moment in which we now live. That oversight doesn’t dilute the film by much, but it is a missed opportunity to underscore the ways art is powerfully wielded in political discourse that takes place far outside museum and gallery walls, and with monumental repercussions.

Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures begins a brief theatrical run in Los Angeles on March 25th at the Laemmle Music Hall, and premieres on HBO on April 4th, is timed to coincide with the massive new exhibits of his work being co-presented by LACMA and the Getty in Los Angeles. More info here and here.

Previously on Art Doc of the Week:

The top photo courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust /LACMA/Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. All other photos courtesy the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.