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MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES
A DEFINITIVE PORTRAIT OF THE PROVOCATIVE ARTIST
"Look at the pictures," said Senator Jesse Helms, denouncing the controversial art of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs pushed boundaries with frank depictions of nudity, sexuality and fetishism, igniting a culture war that rages to this day.
More than 25 years later, MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES does just that - taking an unflinching, unprecedented look at his most provocative work. From acclaimed filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“Inside Deep Throat”; “Party Monster”; “Wishful Drinking” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), and produced by Katharina Otto-Bernstein (“Absolute Wilson”, “Beautopia”), this is the first feature-length documentary about the artist since his death, and the most comprehensive film on Mapplethorpe ever.
As The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LAKMA) plan for their joined landmark Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Medium (opening in March), the film uses the curators preparations as a spring board to tell, for the first time, the complete story of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and work. Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato explore the blurred lines and interplay between Mapplethorpe’s personal and professional lives. MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES reveals a controversial artist who turned the genre of photography into contemporary fine art.
With complete and unprecedented access to The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the documentary draws upon rare archival materials and features never-before-seen photographs and footage of the elusive artist. “Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers – in other words, exactly as the artist intended,” say the filmmakers. Mapplethorpe himself is a strong presence, telling his story in his own words, in never before made public, rediscovered audio interviews, with complete honesty and often shocking candor.
MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES follows his early beginnings as a young artist in New York City through his meteoric rise in the art world to his untimely death. In 1963, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied drawing, painting and sculpture, and soon met his first girlfriend, Patti Smith, one in a string of profoundly influential lovers. By the late 1960s and early 1970s he was taking Polaroid photographs of friends and acquaintances, and was determined to make it, which meant being recognized as an artist and becoming famous. Almost all of the people from key relationships in his life are present in the film, including Sam Wagstaff, David Croland, Jack Fritscher, Lisa Lyon, Marcus Leatherdale and Jack Walls.
The documentary also features almost 50 original interviews with family, friends, co-workers and colleagues, including Mary Boone, Carolina Herrera, Brooke Shields, Helen and Brice Marden, Fran Lebowitz, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, Bob Colacello, and Debbie Harry. Rounding out this portrait are the recollections of Mapplethorpe’s older sister, Nancy, and youngest brother, Edward. An artist himself, Edward assisted his brother for many years and was responsible for much of the technical excellence of his photography.
The duality of black-and-white work reverberated in his life. He often mounted two shows simultaneously: An uptown exhibition might include society portraits and delicate flower stilllifes, while his sexually explicit photographs were on view downtown. Mapplethorpe’s most controversial work — which he considered his most important — chronicled the underground BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism) scene of late 1970s New York City, sparking a national debate over public funding of art some deemed offensive or obscene. Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, when the illness was still a death sentence. He spent the remainder of his life working more feverishly than ever before, not only pursuing perfection, but also striving to secure his legacy after his death. In 1988, a few months before Mapplethorpe’s passing, The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective.
The man who lived to be famous became even more famous after he died. Before his death, he designed one final show, The Perfect Moment, which bought images of flowers, S&M pictures and male African-American nudes together in a museum setting for the first time. As he himself predicted, the combination proved to be too much. In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. canceled The Perfect Moment after Senator Helms took aim at Mapplethorpe. In April of the following year, protests were held when the traveling exhibition arrived at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, resulting in obscenity charges against the CAC and its director, Dennis Barrie. After a dramatic court battle, both were ultimately found not guilty.