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Imaging Sadomasochism:
Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography

Essay by Richard Meyer
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Review of first San Francisco exhibition by
Robert McDonald

Mapplethorpe Links

Robert McDonald
from The Advocate

An Exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at 80 Langton Street, San Francisco, March 21 - April 1, 1978.

"I am a man; nothing human is alien to me." This statement by the Roman playwright Terence (190 - 159? B.C.) would have been a fit epigraph for the first uncensored exhibition of photographs by New York artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Internationally renowned for his society ("Jet Set") portraits and fashion ads, Mapplethorpe has experienced many difficulties in finding an exhibition space for his most recent works: images of the gay S & M scene. Even in "open-minded" cities like New York and San Francisco, commercial galleries and public museums alike have turned him down. They have shown the portraits (a nude Patti Smith, for example), his studies of flowers, even the relatively "soft-core" pics--men in leather and chains, bondage, full frontal nudity--but not the "hard core" stuff.

No wonder! "Conventional" viewers, whether straight or gay, might find them brutal and dehumanizing, including as they do images of FF--even double FF!--rimming and mangling.

Mapplethorpe, considering the nature of the art support system and its patrons, realistically never expected a public exhibition of these works. Still he was hopeful, and through the intercession of influential friends in San Francisco, his work was brought to the attention of the Curatorial Committee of 80 Langton Street, an alternative exhibition space.

Eighty Langton Street, a non-commercial institution, was founded four years ago by the San Francisco Art Dealers Association (from which it is now independent) for the exhibiting of works of art that, for reasons of either form or content, are not shown in galleries and museums. Most often 80 Langton Street, located in the city's industrial South of Market Street area, and formerly a casket factory, shows conceptual, non-static, non-object and performance works.

While the form of Mapplethorpe's works is certainly conventional - 16" x 20" black-and-white photographs - the content, equally certainly, is not. The members of 80 Langton Street's volunteer Curatorial Committee, artists, gallery and museum people, men and women (all straight, by the way), put aside their personal, moral proclivities and decided to exhibit the work on the basis of aesthetic criteria: composition, lighting, gradations of tones from black to white, and so forth.

Mapplethorpe's exhibition, title "Censored" because of his earlier experiences in trying to get the work shown, consisted of 19 images selected by guest curator, San Francisco art-dealer Edward de Celle. It included a self portrait of the artist which appeared on the announcement for the exhibition-now a collector's item. With a whip's handle up his ass, he resembles a scorpion.

The toughest photographs in this very tough show were a sequence of four images of progressive mangling of male genitalia, concluding with a bloody orgasm. The device used resembles the stocks (in miniature) often employed by our Puritan forebears for punishing miscreants. It fits around the penis and testicles, however, rather than neck and limbs.

For all their gruesomeness, the images in this sequence are striking in their resemblance to works by the patriarchal American artist, Willem de Kooning, in his distortions of the human figure and expressionistic use of paint. The depersonalization in the images, a separating of the subject mind from his body and of the artist's "self-distancing" from the subject, was accentuated by the harsh flashbulb light used by Mapplethorpe. (For those who care, the subject, and his lover, whose hands also appear in the series, do "get off" on the process.) In comparison, the other works exhibited appear sedate, even elegant, and sometimes humorous-but only in comparison.

In making such S&M photographs, Mapplethorpe's purpose is to document human experiences that have until now been either ignored or suppressed. Aficionados of S&M, though a minority in the gay as in the non-gay world, are human. What comes across in Mapplethorpe's images are the physical strength of the subjects and the tenderness of their helpers in the exploration of the poetry of pain.

Mapplethorpe initially became a photographer, - after having worked in other art media, because he wanted to take "dirty pictures" of himself with a Polaroid camera. He prefers the term "pornographic" to "erotic" to describe his work - but he insists that he makes pornography that is art. No one else, he feels, has worked with the subject matter as he does. "42nd Street just doesn't go beyond a certain level. I do work that's worth doing."

While Mapplethorpe enjoys photographing sex, he enjoys sex itself more. "Sex without the camera is sexier. Sex is the highest art form. It's the most complicated thing men can be involved in. It has a magic in it comparable to the magic in great art."

"The point of making art," Mapplethorpe asserts, "is educating people." His exhibition at 80 Langton Street may not have been to everyone's taste, but it was instructive and did increase awareness about what is means to be a human being.

Other Mapplethorpe exhibitions at the Simon Lowinsky Gallery in San Francisco and University art Museum in Berkeley have also revealed the artistic vision of a significant young American photographer-- All the works shown are consistent in the photographic beauty of their images.

Image from exhibition announcement


Robert Mapplethorpe

March 21 through April 1, 1978
Reception: Monday, March 20, 6-8 p.m.
80 Langton Street, San Francisco
(415) 626-5416
Gallery Hours: 1-5 p.m.
Tuesday - Saturday