Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic output is, at first glance, traditional with deeply subversive currents. He had an eye attuned for sensuality in all forms. He is perhaps most remembered for his sex photographs and the controversy surrounding the exhibition, The Perfect Moment, which came to a head in 1990 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Two concurrent and collaborative major retrospective exhibitions were mounted this spring at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum by curators Britt Salvesen and Paul Martineau, bringing important critical analysis to bear during the 25th anniversary of that controversial moment in cultural history
In the Spring of 1987, Mapplethorpe mounted dual exhibitions on opposite coasts of the country. Robert Miller Gallery, in New York, opened a show of photographic constructions of platinum prints on linen and canvas. That show included the now-famous portrait of a pensive Andy Warhol set against black with a white disc floating behind his head and flanked by four panels of light silk. A gorgeous construction set in a frame of the artist’s own design, the piece set the world record at auction for a work by Mapplethorpe, selling for more than $600,000 in 2006. At the same time in San Francisco, Fraenkel Gallery presented Robert Mapplethorpe: Platinum Prints.
Andy Grundberg, in The New York Times, reviewed this new work as follows: ‘For a photograph to succeed in the art world, all the signs this spring suggest, it needs to be an object. And the more elaborate, the better. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs … are a case in point. Printed on linen cloth using the archaic platinum process, they are mounted on stretchers, like paintings, and float within frames of thick, black wood. More often than not they are flanked by a panel (sometimes two) of understated but luxurious fabric. The resulting diptychs and triptychs recall Minimalist painting more than they resemble photographs’ (The New York Times, May 3, 1987, p. H29).
Over the past decade, Mapplethorpe had become highly adept at utilizing to great effect the versatility and elegance of the black and white photographic print. His rigorous adherence to restrained compositions and a pursuit of perfectionism in all technical aspects of photography often allowed him to pursue an unconventional subject matter within a highly formalized environment. In 1977, Mapplethorpe had photographed a tattered, thread-bare American flag, at full mast, with the sun positioned directly behind the stars (fig. 1.) Released as a gelatin silver print, it is a searing, hard-edged image, and one made at the beginning of a lengthy period of work focused on the gay male S community.
In the San Francisco exhibition a decade later, his third at Fraenkel Gallery and shown in a city that he had come to love and frequent and known for its open sexual culture, Mapplethorpe presented a stunning, brand-new image of the American flag which seemingly reverses the reading of the image he had made exactly ten years prior. Resplendent in the sun, handsomely erect in the wind and flying at full mast, this image was printed in luscious platinum on exquisite Belgian linen in a beveled, artist-designed, matte-black wooden frame. The flag, shown horizontally, floats above a blanket of clouds and the tops of well-worn mountains in the distance. While the visual elements are nearly identical to the previous image, the emotional resonance is completely different, presenting a vision of classic beauty, professional maturity and personal dignity.
Other prints of this image reside in the permanent collections of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Getty Research Institute Collection, among others.