MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES
A REVIEW BY JAMES POWELL
Pumping downtown with Tenth fashion editor and guyfriend Prentiss Anderson for HBO’s private screening of Look at the Pictures, a retrospective chronicling the professional and personal excursions of iconic, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, questions were already lurching in my mind about the film. I was confident, based on previous “no-holds-bar” works such as Party Monster and Eyes of Tammy that powerhouse directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbuto would provide a raw, objective and accurate account of Mapplethorpe’s controversial work. I also figured the directors would probably illustrate his impact on solidifying the medium of photography as a serious art form and then becoming a cause célèbre regarding public censorship—but no shade, as soon as we entered the theater my “mental index finger” began to sway.
One visit to my childhood home in central Virginia and you’d get it—my parent’s are some intellectual, militant, Lowcountry South Carolina bred Negros who were all out of fucks probably since the 1960’s. I, a product of this seemingly decorous, southern veneer mixed with Black radicalism, took one sip of my wine and asked the Lord to not let this be one of my “bible page folding moments” because Mapplethorpe’s ardor for the Black male body tends to be a source of tension for many a Black queen.
In 1986, Mapplethorpe published what many consider an ode to the Black homoerotic nude in his work Black Book. His frank treatment of the subject matter fertilized the ground for a sensitive debate: Did Mapplethorpe really SEE us Black boys and respect our experiences or were we just avant-garde articles of art that could get him more praise and coin from the establishment? This notorious work would even prompt an installation by Black, gay contemporary artist Glenn Ligon—Notes on the Margin of the Black Book—in which Ligon uses images from Mapplethorpe’s Black Book to question the appropriation of Black culture and ideas about Black masculinity.
Because, Chile, we know how these little things can be glossed over so I’m happy to relay that Bailey and Barbuto’s Look at the Pictures did not. Through several interviews with close friends, his brother, former lover Jack Walls and muse Robert Moody, we learned that Mapplethorpe was in search of God—and it would seem the Black man’s penis was his personal doctrine. Pictures not only captured the controversy surrounding Black Book, but also the romantic affairs and intense passion Mapplethorpe had for Black men; his devotion to muse, Milton Moore, who many called “the greatest love of his life”; the one who would be his companion at death, Jack Walls.
In the summer of 1988 at the Whitney Museum, when a Reaganesque America was just as palpable as the July air, the ailing, AIDS-stricken Mapplethorpe would attend his final show in person. Sometimes I think art and death are good judys—keekeeing, transcending space and time, knowing that they will never taste the elixir of non-existence or irrelevance, and wouldn’t you know, 27 years later, Mapplethorpe’s siren song is still mystifying the world. There is still much to be uncovered and answered about his success, foibles and loves, but Look at the Pictures is a sincere invocation for Mapplethorpe’s tale. We say: give it a go, learn a little, share with a friend – it’ll for sure ignite a conversation.
-- James Powell, Harlem-residing Tenth Art Critic and all around bourgeoiradical new fag.
*Catch Look at the Pictures on HBO, premiering Monday, April 4th.