Rewind: Robert Mapplethorpe – ‘Too beautiful for its own good’

Robert Mapplethorpe, Derrick Cross, 1983. Courtesy the artist

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a highly influential American photographer known for his formalism and fine technical facility. Working mostly in black and white, Mapplethorpe’s subject matter included male and female nudes, still lives of flowers and celebrity portraits. His work was often overtly homoerotic and at times sparked controversy.

In June 1985 ACCA’s inaugural Director John Buckley went to New York to meet with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. At that meeting, which took place in Mapplethorpe’s studio/apartment, Robert and John selected the 60 photographs that would form the first exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s works to be held in Australia. John Buckley recalls the moment of entering the large New York studio as “stepping, like Alice, into the world beyond the looking glass”. The apartment was stylishly minimal; polished perspex and wooden surfaces reflected the filtered city light and, John noted, from the number of cameras and the lighting it appeared that the studio was set up for an upcoming shoot.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Susan Sontag, 1984. Courtesy the artist

Selecting the works with an Australian audience in mind, and the desire to introduce the breadth of Mapplethorpe’s work, Buckley and Mapplethorpe chose a selection from the best-known series of works: male and female nudes, portraits, flower photographs and a selection from the ‘soon-to-be-notorious’ erotic imagery. It was the National Endowment for the Arts sponsorship of the 1989 Mapplethorpe touring survey exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment featuring his X Portfolio works, that was to spark the ‘culture-wars’ of the 1990’s, a period of increased censorship for the arts which left the US divided over whether or not public funding should support contemporary art. In Melbourne, although John Buckley recalls that “nobody blinked” about the content of the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the ACCA archives reveal that there were a couple of letters of complaint, and that God was cited by one correspondent as not being at all happy with ACCA for presenting Mapplethorpe’s work.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lake Memphremagog, 1979. Courtesy the artist

The exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs 1976-1985 was however a resounding success, and received funding from both Hasselblad and Kodak. It also attracted rave reviews in the press, and high audience attendance. The Australian called it ‘easily the best show in town’ and The Melbourne Times reviewer, photographer Janina Green, described it as ‘too beautiful for its own good’. For Australian audiences familiar only with reproductions of Mapplethorpe’s work Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs 1976-1985 provided an opportunity to encounter the nuance and subtlety of the work in the original.

The exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs 1976-1985 was held at ACCA from 4 February – 16 March 1986.