Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flowers
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flowers
Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs, sharply focussed, blur an interpretive boundary.
If you have between 10 and 50 thousand dollars to drop tomorrow, you might want to get over to Christie’s, New York, where forty of Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs will be auctioned. Nearly all the works in the lot are in color, a surprise to us, since when we think of Mapplethorpe, we think “black and white”—“sculptural”—“aestheticism”—“S&M.”
These sale price estimates are Christie’s's, not ours, and we must note that tulips and calla lilies were given higher estimates than others, even a big fluffy mum (shown apparently floating on the Star Trek holodeck). It’s that Mapplethorpe is known for his erotic pictures, and callas and tulips look more like human sex organs than a spray of miniature orchids does.
Actually, one might say that Mapplethorpe’s portraits of people look like flowers, just very close-up on the stamen and pistil, but that sort of thinking would never command six figures (though it might attract bees.) No, the flowers remind us of his nudes, viz. this somewhat overwrought review from 1989, also the year Mapplethorpe died.
“His treatment of the male and female aspects of the calla lily is most striking, one photograph emphasizing the flower’s phallic stamen, another emphasizing its feminine curves. At the size at which the flower photographs have been printed, their sensuality becomes overwhelming. The colors—yellow-orange lilies against a royal purple background, green pipe-cleaner stems and red silk petals of a poppy and bud—are so vibrant that they draw the viewer in, forcing him to acknowledge their primitive sexuality.”
Controversy over Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photos turned into a cultural slugfest in 1990—when the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was charged with “pandering obscenity” after opening Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. William Ivey, director of the National Endowment for the Arts under Clinton, told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000, “(Mapplethorpe) was a turning point in the way the debate was framed….Ultimately it galvanized support for the (National Endowment for the Arts) and the federal role for arts support in this country. Arts advocates came together and stayed together.” On the other side, the leader of Citizens for Community Values, which brought charges against the museum, claimed, if not victory, then vindication: “The community at large learned that not everything is protected by the First Amendment. Citizens understand there is a system in place to question.”
Flowers #3, 1984
We recall how curator Janet Kardon and, later, Cincinnati’s museum officials and the CAC director tried to divert discussion of the photographic content by resorting to formalism. They kept circling back to aesthetics—geometry, framing, texture, as if to say “so what it’s a giant penis. Here’s a giant calla lily Mapplethorpe has framed and lit with the same excellence. Get your mind out of the gutter!”
This interesting analysis by Dustin Kidd suggests that, while the Cincinnati museum and its director were acquitted, the case itself, rather than shielding art from future charges actually blurred the line between art and obscentity.
But let’s give Mapplethorpe credit where it’s due. It was he (bravo!) who blurred that line.
Posted by Julie on 10/09 at 06:13 PM