Fani Kayode Adebiyi

His images have redrawn the boundaries between pornography and art

30 years ago, Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS at the age 43, leaving an indelible mark with his photographs, his antibourgeois audacity, and his redefinition of the boundaries between pornography and art. Like many others in those days, especially in the US, he was killed by an underestimated disease, which spares no one, not even genius artists. This disease must be mentioned when talking about Mapplethorpe, because in 1988, when he was at the peak of success, he established a foundation bearing his own name that has, among its purposes, that of supporting AIDS medical research and information. Two years before, his mentor and lover Sam Wagstaff had died of the same disease. Born in New York from a middle-class, Catholic family of Irish origins, Robert was the third of six children. He studied art, frequented the underground environment, and became attached to Patty Smith and then to model David Crowland. It is no longer an anecdote that, when he was 16, he stole a pornographic magazine: the fact that the packaging did not allow him to browse through the pages made it even more appealing. Who, at the age of 16, would not be tempted by the forbidden? For him, that was a sort of voyeuristic premonition, a keystone to overturn and challenge the clichés of what is off-limits. And he succeeded in doing it, by subordinating every scene he photographed to aesthetic perfection, cancelling the boundaries between reality and theatrical fiction, using subjects, spaces, and lights as if they were tools that allowed him to make his images more sculptural.

Whatever the subjects, his works were ahead of his time – they would affect the advertising world and the self culture (including his friend Warhol), and introduce photography to genre and ethnicity themes. He also moved beyond the ancient, with combinations of bodies and faces that are characterized by unprecedented contrasts of light densities. Tactile as well as visual sensations are felt in front of his portraits and abstract flower blow-ups, which become refined hymns of sensual desire and formal purity. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, which holds the greatest part of the artist’s archive, opens the second part of the Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now exhibition, in which his works and themes are juxtaposed to shots by six photographers: Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligonnew, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya. A great chance to explore and delve deeper into Robert Mapplethorpe’s complex legacy through the eyes of other artists.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe
Implicit tensions:
Mapplethorpe Now
Guggenheim
New York
Curated by
Lauren Hinkson
Susan Thompson
Until 5/01/2020

Maria Angela Tiozzi

 

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