KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe was best known for his photos of male nudes and sexual fetishes. In 1989, an exhibit at his work helped ignite fierce debates about the role of government funding in the arts.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In Cincinnati, police close down the Mapplethorpe exhibit.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We are sending the Mapplethorpe exhibit to trial.
MCEVERS: An upcoming HBO documentary examines Mapplethorpe's life and work. He's also the subject of a major retrospective that spans two museums here in LA, the J. Paul Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: With his Hasselblad and Polaroid cameras, Robert Mapplethorpe worked out of his East Village studio. He photographed lovers, friends, models and himself, like his frenemy, Andy Warhol, who he also shot. Mapplethorpe did fashion shoots and made portraits of patrons and socialites.
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ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE: Here. Here you go. Lift your head up a little bit. Look here.
DEL BARCO: This video clip of Mapplethorpe choreographing a model plays on a loop at the exhibition at LACMA. It gives a glimpse into his intimate studio sessions and his world, a world that also included downtown luminaries like Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and, of course, his muse Patti Smith.
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PATTI SMITH: The thief of sleep, the ambassador of dreams...
DEL BARCO: Smith and Mapplethorpe made an experimental film in 1978 that's on display at LACMA. The exhibition includes Mapplethorpe's art school ink drawings, his collages, his paper dolls and jewelry he fashioned out of scavenged objects. Mapplethorpe even framed his own underwear, notes LACMA curator Britt Salvesen.
BRITT SALVESEN: That was, I think, from very early on. A part of his aim in art making is to generate a certain kind of feeling that was visceral and erotic.
DEL BARCO: Mapplethorpe viewed his work as art, not pornography, even though his subject matter could be graphic.
BRIAN ENGLISH: I certainly think that had Robert lived 400 years before or 500 years before, he would have been a Vatican artist.
DEL BARCO: Brian English was one of Mapplethorpe's studio assistants through the final years as the prolific artist was dying of AIDS. English says his mentor captured perfect moments of beauty that transcended many boundaries of gender, sexuality and societal norms.
ENGLISH: Yeah, he did push culture, and it's important for people to understand him. As an artist, his skills in finding that perfect angle to look at something is like what painters would do. His pictures became ethereal in the way that they would glow. I oftentimes think that most of his pictures were self-portraits in a way, even if he was photographing someone else.
DEL BARCO: Both the LACMA and the Getty shows include an infamous shot of Mapplethorpe with a strategically placed bullwhip. He's bent over and looking back, staring at the viewer. Again, LACMA curator Britt Salvesen.
SALVESEN: He is defiantly saying I'm a participant here. This is my world and my life and my desire.
DEL BARCO: The shows also include homoerotic and sadomasochistic images that shocked and polarized viewers. In 1989, a few months after he died, the Corcoran Gallery canceled a retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work titled "The Perfect Moment." During congressional hearings that summer about funding for the NEA, then Sen. Jesse Helms declared, quote, "this pornography is sick." The show traveled to Cincinnati where it sparked an obscenity trial. Several years ago, LACMA showed some of these images without incident, and Salvesen says the time is right to show them again.
SALVESEN: I do expect they will have a very strong impact, and I think that's part of what he wanted to do. I wouldn't want it to become too safe or too comfortable because it was intended to provoke.
DEL BARCO: By contrast, the Getty Museum has saved Mapplethorpe's most controversial photos for the end of its exhibition. Rather than mount the photos on the walls, curator Paul Martineau chose to display them in a glass case labeled with an advisory.
PAUL MARTINEAU: I wanted them to be shown in a more discreet manner, so they were actually made to be seen in a more intimate way.
DEL BARCO: I mean, these are some challenging photos.
MARTINEAU: Yes. This is a picture of a gentleman wearing a jockstrap and some leather trusses around his waist.
DEL BARCO: Other photos from Mapplethorpe's so-called X portfolio show a man in a rubber sensory deprivation suit in close-ups of various S and M scenarios and gay sex acts. These most controversial photos are shown in a gallery with Mapplethorpe's iconic floral photos. After his death, Mapplethorpe's foundation searched for years to find the right place to store his vast archive. They found it at the Getty Research Institute.
Do you want a jacket? You have to wear a jacket?
MICHELLE BRUNNICK: It's cold, yes. It's basically a large meat locker.
DEL BARCO: Curatorial assistant Michelle Brunnick leads us into the Getty's cold storage facility which will be the permanent home to more than 1,900 photos, letters and other objects. Attorney Michael Ward Stout, a board member with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, said the Getty had the best facilities to store the photographer's archive.
WARD STOUT: He wanted photography to achieve the level of respect that painting and sculpture had.
DEL BARCO: The foundation agreed to entrust Mapplethorpe's archive to the Getty and LACMA in 2011. This new retrospective is the culmination of this unprecedented partnership, says LACMA director Michael Govan.
MICHAEL GOVAN: When I talk to some of my friends in New York, they said, oh, my God, Robert Mapplethorpe is a New Yorker artist. The legacy should be in New York. And one of the cases I made about Los Angeles was that if you look at the future of where artists are moving from all over the world that LA is one of the up-and-coming art centers.
DEL BARCO: Edward Mapplethorpe who was his brother's studio assistant and an artist himself says he also questioned whether his brother's photos should be stored in Los Angeles.
EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE: Because, yes, he was a real New Yorker, but now that I've met the curators, I've met the archivists and I see the facilities and understand it's where it should be. To see them now exhibited the way they were intended to be exhibited and appreciated and looked at and presented in such a nice way is extremely, extremely heartwarming.
DEL BARCO: And he notes Mapplethorpe's archive forever has a home at the Getty next to the vast photo collection of his beloved benefactor and lover, Sam Wagstaff. The HBO documentary airs April 4, and the photos will be on display at both museums until the end of July. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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THEM: (Singing) Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A...