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Curated by Tobias Ostrander, Mapplethorpe: Escultura explores the artist’s interest in classical and Renaissance sculpture, as both subject and aesthetic resource. The 36 works exhibited include unique Polaroids that evidence the artist’s early interest in Michelangelo, as well as others depicting male nude sculptures in public parks and squares, taken during a trip to Europe by the artist in the early 1970s. Silver gelatin prints of classical marble and bronze sculptures are included, taken at several museums, as well as examples from the artist’s own collection. The selection mixes sculpture-based works with additional subjects portrayed by the artist, including flowers, portraits and sex acts involving sadomasochism related to his famous X portfolio. The diversity of the selection is intended to demonstrate how the artist approached all of his subjects with a sculptor’s eye. Strategies that evidence his sculptural interests include the use of dramatic lighting effects to stress the volume of the figures and objects represented, as well as his habitual use of pedestals, curtains and other forms of drapery. Mapplethorpe’s distinct cropping of his images, which highlight and abstract sections of the body, directly nod to the fragmented state of much of classical sculpture. The unique sexual charge that the artist brought to all his images is here addressed as related to ancient connections between aesthetics and eroticism, associated within historic renderings of the human form.

During an interview with Janet Kardon in 1987, Robert Mapplethorpe famously stated, “If I had been born one hundred or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make sculpture.” The current exhibition Mapplethorpe: Escultura addresses the artist’s unique explorations of three-dimensional forms within the two-dimensions of photography, focusing on the particular influence that Classical and Renaissance sculpture had on his production, as both subject and aesthetic resource.

Untitled (Slave) is a pale Polaroid from 1974 in which the artist reproduced two images of Michelangelo’s sculpture Dying Captive (ca. 1513). This is an early reference to his admiration for the Renaissance artist, a deep attraction that his friend and muse Patti Smith commemorated in her poem dedicated to him, titled “The Boy Who Loved Michelangelo.” The upward viewing angle structured in Dying Captive, which greatly adds to its strong sensuality, would become a strategy engaged by Mapplethorpe in his photographs, particularly in his Polaroid self-portraits from the 1970s, of which an intriguing example is included in the exhibition. Several additional Polaroids from the early 1970s depict images of sculptures in public parks, taken by the artist during a trip to London. These nude male figures, originally intended to convey heroic and humanist ideals, are imbued with erotic suggestion by the artist, through the particular upward angle of his depictions.

Mapplethorpe: Escultura also includes silver gelatin prints of classical bronze and marble sculptures, taken at several European museums. Bronze Sculpture from 1978 is a strong example, depicting an ancient metal artifact positioned with a black base above a white pedestal. Age and history have damaged the piece and what remains intact of the male figure is his lower torso, genitals, buttocks, and thighs. The photograph Milton Moore, from 1981, presents the leg and genitals of a contemporary African American male model at a distinctly similar angle to that of Bronze Sculpture. The manner in which Mapplethorpe crops the figure in the second image, specifically framing him from his lower torso to his muscular thigh, directly recalls the fragmentation of the classical sculpture in the earlier photograph.

Beyond the manner in which the fragmentation found historically with Classical sculpture can clearly be seen as influencing framing and compositional decisions in his representations of male and female bodies, the New York artist’s attraction to several other tropes associated with ancient Greek and Roman sculpture are also evident. Curtains, drapery, and wrapping the body in translucent fabric are some of these traditions engaged by the artist, evident for example in the elegant portrait Patti Smith from 1978, or the strangely combined figures in White Gauze from 1984. Mapplethorpe’s habitual use of stone bases to position his figures is another sculptural strategy, as in Vibert from 1984, which depicts the shadowed torso and arms of its subject leaning on a low stone column, transforming him into a bust-like sculpture.

Mapplethorpe evidences a particular magic with his use of the black and white photographic medium, in his ability to seemingly transform human bodies into static sculptures, and with sculptures to imbue them with human-like vitality. With the image Dennis from 1978, for example, the skin of the shoulder, neck, and chin of the figure shine with a marble-like smoothness, while with Black Bust from 1988, the face of an African man depicted in a 19th century sculpture, which formed part of the artist’s personal collection, is shown at such close range that it takes on the intimate feeling of a direct portrait of a live individual.

In addition to works depicting sculptures and nude figures, Mapplethorpe: Escultura presents images of alternate subjects photographed by the artist, including flowers, portraits, and sex acts involving sadomasochism related to his famous X Portfolio. This range within the exhibition is intended to demonstrate how Mapplethorpe approached all of his subjects with a sculptor’s eye. An interesting example from his flower series is Orchid with Hand, from 1983, which depicts a male hand holding a large orchid on a table set against a black background. Formally, the fingers of the hand and the petals of the flower are twinned in the image, both taking on an uncanny, alien character. In the portrait of Carol Overby from 1979, she holds her hand up against the bright sunlight that flattens and abstracts the smooth textures of her bare white skin and long hair. Richard from 1978, which forms part of the X Portfolio, is perhaps the most aggressive image included in the exhibition, displaying its subject’s bloody genitals painfully pressed against a metal plaque and tied with string, presented within a flat composition that recalls a sculptural relief. The artist habitually uses dramatic lighting in all his works to emphasize the volume of the body parts and objects represented.

While intentionally diverse, all the artist’s chosen subject matter inherently evokes the human body and more specifically, sexualized bodies. He brings a particular energy to his depictions and is able to imbue all, even a plant or vegetable, as in Cattail or Gourd, both from 1983, with sexual content or erotic potential. It is his attraction to Classical and Renaissance statues however – their poses, proportions and muscular detail – that this exhibition argues is the most complex and intriguing of his aesthetic pursuits. The artist spoke of his quest for the “perfection of form,” and when applied to renditions of the human body, this ambition speaks closely to Hellenistic conceptions of beauty and the stated goals of Renaissance artists such as the aforementioned Michelangelo. The eroticism that he brings to these references reminds us that even within these idealized-past sculptural traditions, erotic desire was never fully absent or even repressed. While the directness and unapologetic quality of Mapplethorpe’s photographs feels quite contemporary and aggressively progressive for his moment, these works’ particular entwining of beauty and sexual desire within sculptural form feels provocatively ancient.