A few weeks ago, a friend and I decided to spend a cultural weekend in Los Angeles. We live in a relatively small town, and while it’s not completely devoid of cultural opportunities, town is definitely skewed toward outdoor activities rather than cerebral pursuits. Sometimes you just have to escape to the big city!
The focus of our weekend was two companion exhibits showcasing the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, famed and controversial photographer who died in 1989, just a few years after his work started to garner the attention he craved.
In today’s climate of selfies and Instagram, we’re inundated with photographs all the time. Everyone’s taking them, everyone’s editing them, and everyone’s an artist.We don’t question photography’s place as a legitimate art form. So it can be hard to fathom that as recent as thirty or forty years ago, photography, especially portraiture, was not widely accepted in the art world. Mapplethorpe’s seemingly innate understanding of composition, lighting, and perspective were undeniable – at least among those who were able to look past some of the shock-and-awe subject matter for which he became so renowned. But to dismiss his work at first sign of something that makes you uncomfortable is all too easy. It’s deserving of a second look, and then some.
The exhibits are at The Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Each museum is worthy of a day-trip, but it’s possible to see the two Mapplethorpe exhibits in a day, if you’re able to pass up all the other art each has on offer.
We started at The Getty right at opening time (10am), followed by lunch in their beautiful restaurant. Make reservations beforehand if you want to ensure a table. The setting is so gorgeous that people come just for the restaurant. Entrance to The Getty is free, but parking will run $15.
The Getty exhibit featured work mostly from Mapplethorpe’s later years. The polish and perfection were evident. These weren’t works of an artist trying to find where he fits. While there are plenty of pieces that portray everyday subjects, there are several explicit pieces as well, all from his aptly-named X Portfolio. They are relegated to a separate room (something I understood, but quite frankly found a bit disappointing), and there’s a sign on the wall as you enter. So if you want to avoid them, certainly you can.
The LACMA exhibit costs $25 (includes their vast permanent collection and the Mapplethorpe special exhibit). It showcased more of what can be considered Mapplethorpe’s formative works – some early short films he directed, several works of collage, and even a few pen drawings from his student days at Parsons School of Design. Normally, I prefer seeing an artist’s work in chronological fashion, but in this case, I liked the order in which we experienced Mapplethorpe’s work. I felt a deeper appreciation for his earlier work after seeing the work for which he’s best known.
Both exhibits are on display until July 31, 2016. Get there if you can. If you want to do some homework beforehand, I highly recommend the recent HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”. For a slightly different introduction to Mapplethorpe, his work, and what living in Manhattan was like at that time, read Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir “Just Kids”.