A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
How many artists—painters, photographers, sculptors—have been denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate? If you can name one, it’s probably because Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, in a 1989 diatribe, argued that the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe were so filthy that they deserved to be hidden from innocent eyes. Then, like a carnival barker outside a freakshow, Helms teased a black and white copy of one of the offending images.
“Look at the pictures!” Helms fulminated. Robert Mapplethorpe, who’d died of AIDS earlier that year, didn’t live to respond to Helms’ art-attack. By then, the artist was so revered, as a photographer of human faces, figures, and floral perfection that he’d already earned a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. A selection of his work called “The Perfect Moment” was touring U.S. art museums. But it was Helms’ denunciation, a pretext to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, that made Mapplethorpe’s name synonymous with dirty pictures.
His work is strong stuff—and beautiful, too. For the most part, it’s anything but dirty. Shadowy is a better word. Now HBO’s "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures," directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, debuting Monday, April 4th, puts the artist’s life and career into perspective. The documentary premieres just in time for two major retrospectives of Mapplethorpe’s work at the Getty Museum and the LACMA. Fittingly, the film begins with the curators of both exhibitions sorting through the late artist’s massive collection (120,000 of thousands of images and negatives, plus diaries, films and more), deciding what will go on display. Gazing at the infamous “Mapplethorpe and Bullwhip” shot, a curator reverently remarks upon the photo’s composition, and suggests that the position of the artist’s free hand “almost looks as though he’s releasing the shutter.” Really? Everybody else is staring at 1). that whip going up his bum and 2). the horny, inviting look in Mapplethorpe’s eyes.
The directors do well when allowing Mapplethorpe’s friends, family, colleagues, and the artist himself—via archive interviews—to frame the conversation. Though Mapplethorpe speaks fondly of his childhood in Floral Park, Queens, brief interviews with the artist’s father are more revealing. While Mapplethorpe’s mother adored her middle son, his father discouraged his son’s interest in art and never accepted his sexuality. One early supporter, in addition to his older sister, was the family priest, who still has Mapplethorpe’s teenage artwork on the walls of his house.