A new documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe that has screened at the Sundance Film Festival shows how the photographer turned obscenity into art. Owen Gleiberman takes a look.

Twenty-seven years ago, when Senator Jesse Helms took to the floor of the US Congress to denounce an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, the dividing line in the culture war was clear. Those on the right found Mapplethorpe’s transgressive, S&M-flavoured imagery to be – in a word – obscene. Those on the left viewed it to be the cutting edge of free expression: a valid form of art. One of the most enticing aspects of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s beautiful and clear-eyed documentary about the late art-world superstar, is that the movie, while it makes the case for Mapplethorpe as a fearless and important artist, never denies that a number of his photographs were obscene. They were scandalous, shocking, and illicit, with elements of pornography – a medium that Mapplethorpe had drawn on from his earliest days as an artist. The movie demonstrates that one of his central inspirations was to turn obscenity into art.

The battle over Mapplethorpe’s 1989 traveling exhibition was such a headline-grabbing standoff that to this day, the mere mention of his name in the US evokes that infamous controversy. The impulse behind Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is to bring its subject out from that shadow by inviting us to experience the humanity that pulsated through even his most shocking images. And by letting us see that the shock value was just one arrow in his vast quiver. Mapplethorpe was a technical virtuoso who photographed flowers the same way he did men’s bodies and, especially, their sexual organs: by converting them, through the play of light and shadow, into eroticised sculptures of the natural world.

What Ansel Adams did for birch trees, Mapplethorpe did for latex bodysuits

The film captures how all of this emerged from the man himself – a ‘50s suburban Catholic kid who grew up into a tall, wavy-haired glamourpuss who looked like Jon Bon Jovi as a skinny punk sheik. He moved into New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where he formed a bond with Patti Smith, and we see images of these two sexy wastrels united in their instinct for self-presentation – that is, their desire to be famous. Mapplethorpe may have looked like a high-cheekboned guttersnipe, but he was relentlessly ambitious, and we hear how this drove both his charming narcissism and his formal experiments. From gay-porn collages saturated with color, to Polaroids, and through classically framed images of the forbidden, he came up with ways to turn the most literal and superficial aspects of photography into a sleek new form of black-and-white pop. What Ansel Adams did for birch trees, Mapplethorpe did for latex bodysuits. His subject was the raw beauty of desire made flesh, only heightened by the primal power of fetishism.

Heaven and hell

From the playfully campy Eyes of Tammy Faye to the earnest social X-ray of Inside Deep Throat, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have always found ingenious ways to echo the soul and spirit of their subjects. In Mapplethorpe, they create an aesthetic mirror of the scruffy glamour of ‘70s New York, which then morphs into the moneyed mystique of the ‘80s. The movie is a gorgeously edited scrapbook of underground passion.  Mapplethorpe was a libertine who inspired a crush in almost everyone he met, and when he started to haunt underground gay clubs like the Mineshaft, the nightly orgies bent his imagination. He became a blissed-out lapsed Catholic living in heaven and hell at the same time, a formalist of subversion who asked: how can an image that looks this perfect be wrong?

Mapplethorpe pushed himself further and further – into photographs that would get him in trouble, but also into museums that would, he hoped, elevate his achievement into something timeless. The tragedy is that his master plan began to take wing just as he was running out of time. Diagnosed with Aids, he landed a major show at the Whitney Museum, and the images of the opening-night champagne party, in which he seems suddenly to have aged 30 years, are haunting. By the time the film revisits the controversy, with Jesse Helms growling out his condemnation (“Look at the pictures!”), we realize it’s just a sideshow, a way of damning an artist by turning him into an icon of decadence. Of course, you could make the case that an icon of decadence is exactly what Robert Mapplethorpe was. But the movie dares to ask: what’s wrong with that?

 ★★★★☆             

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