It’s a sure sign of an artist’s impact — at least for those with the privilege of tasting success during their lifetimes — that wealthy patrons will pay enormous sums to have their portraits done. At a certain point in Robert Mapplethorpe’s career, such commissions came to dominate the kinky/controversial photographer’s schedule — and in a fair and just universe, documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato would probably be rolling in similar offers. No one does a livelier job of exposing the interior world of complex personalities than the World of Wonder duo, whose “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” achieves entertaining profundity without shying away from the inherently profane nature of their subject’s identity.
If anything, and in keeping with their “Inside Deep Throat” chutzpah, the directors dive head-first into the controversy, opening with — and adopting as subtitle — the challenge levied by conservative senator Jesse Helms, who drew a line between “aesthetic art” and obscenity, asking Congressmen to examine the work of this “known homosexual who died of AIDS” and decide for themselves. “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” generously indulges Helms’ ultimatum, presenting more swollen male members and S&M imagery in the space of two hours than most audiences will see on arthouse screens all year.
But the pictures only tell part of the story, and this well-researched and wonderfully revealing documentary goes a long way to contextualize both Mapplethorpe’s career and the often-scandalous oeuvre he left behind. The project’s brief theatrical release and more wide-reaching HBO run have been timed to coincide with a pair of complementary exhibitions at the Getty Center and Los Angeles County Museum of Art — the behind-the-scenes, white-glove preparation of which positions the documentary in time, while offering glimpses of absurd humor as the curators attempt to appear ambivalent about, say, the self-portrait in which Mapplethorpe poses with bullwhip up his bum.
While Bailey and Barbato predictably celebrate Mapplethorpe’s artistic influence, the film is no mere hagiography, explaining how what we now consider to be his genius had as much to do with his insatiable desire for celebrity as the work itself. As we learn via a visit to his childhood neighborhood in Floral Park, Queens, as well as through conversations with family members and early art-school acquaintances, he wasn’t particularly interested in or adept at photography (his father was an amateur shutterbug, though “Maypo” never showed an interest in his darkroom). Rather, after striking out at several other styles, he found photography to be a medium that best fit both his emerging artistic vision, working first in collage, and only later behind the lens.
It should be clear to anyone trying to reconcile Mapplethorpe’s phallic and fetishistic shock photos with his flowers and more “tasteful” nudes (a notion whose hypocrisy he helped to erode) that he was an often contradictory figure. The film also reminds how photography was not then viewed as commanding the same value as painting or sculpture — which explains not only how Mapplethorpe managed to amass an enormous collection of important work during his self-teaching days, but also why the always hilarious Fran Lebowitz tossed the prints the ambitious young artist gifted to her.
Though he could be generous, the vision of Mapplethorpe that emerges is mostly that of a social-climbing user, a misfit whose pansexual charms led him into advantageous relationships with poet/singer Patti Smith (archivally speaking, a huge presence, though she evidently declined to participate) and art curator Sam Wagstaff, who bought him a loft and helped launch his professional career. Easily the film’s most compelling supporting character is younger brother Edward, an aspiring artist in his own right who went on to assist Robert professionally. (At one point, after Edward’s name appeared before his own on the invitation for a group show, Mapplethorpe insisted he change his name to Edward Maxey.) As he reflects back on the toll ambition took on his brother, the movie transcends its subject and speaks to a deeper perversity — the all-consuming urge to be famous.
Whether out of politesse or legal propriety, documentaries tend to steer clear of analyzing the particulars of individuals’ sexual lives, and yet, as Mapplethorpe himself saw it (per an archival audio interview), his work was almost like a diary or documentary of “what I’m involved with at any given moment” — and what he was involved with might involve putting someone’s forearm where the sun don’t shine, or finding illicit pleasure in pain.
To that end, Bailey and Barbato proceed down the more private path, speaking to ex-lovers about what turned Mapplethorpe on at different times, when he embraced his homosexuality and how his sexual tastes evolved. Approaching such subjects soberly makes it possible to process something as provocative as Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, consisting of 13 sadomasochistic images, which the documentary does, patiently studying each photograph in turn. Of course, in 1989, when Helms had his public conniption, such photos were far more shocking than they are today, with far worse popping up behind each spam message or ill-chosen Google link, and though Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment” show was once enough to get Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center charged with obscenity, no such outrage seems to greet the Los Angeles expositions.
Just in case, there are no shortage of art critics, contemporaries and collectors to offer their opinions here, as if in anticipation of further controversy. Still, when it comes to art, aesthetic or otherwise — and one could certainly argue that, with all due respect to the big reveal at the end of “Boogie Nights,” one can hardly imagine a more aesthetically stunning display of the male anatomy than Mapplethorpe’s “Man in Polyester Suit” — Helms was on the right track: The best way to gauge the impact of challenging work is simply to look at the pictures, and for those who can’t make it to LACMA or Getty (or those wanting to better understand the man being exposed there), the documentary offers that opportunity and then some.