Mapplethorpe Exhibition Opens at Guggenheim Ahead of Upcoming Biopic

Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum

Three decades after the death of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a new exhibition and film explore the man behind some of the 20th century’s most brazen and beautiful images.

As the 30th anniversary of his death approaches, lovers of contemporary art are once again examining the life and work of the controversial photographer, whose stark black-and-white images continue to elicit critical raves and public outrage alike.

A recently-opened exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now,” explores both the range of Robert Mapplethorpe's work and legacy, as well as his influence on other contemporary artists.

Running through Jan. 5, 2020, the show has been split into two parts. The exhibition's first phase, on view through July 10, showcases highlights--including flowers, male and female nudes, and portraiture, including some of Mapplethorpe's best-known self portraits--from the Guggenheim's collection of his imagery.

A major boon to the museum's photography collection, the 200 photographs and objects gifted to the museum by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1993 led to the creation of an acquisition committee dubbed the Photography Council. 

The second phase of "Implicit Tensions" opens on July 24 and will balance a selection of Mapplethorpe images against pieces by a range of contemporary artists (including Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon and Catherine Opie) whose work either subtly or overtly finds its inspiration in Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic and often-controversial approach.

Enhancing the exhibition is a screening of Mapplethorpe documentaries every Tuesday at 6 p.m. through Feb. 26. “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now” is organized by Guggenheim associate curator of collections Lauren Hinkson, associate curator Susan Thompson, and curatorial assistant Levi Prombaum.

On March 1, Mapplethorpe, the narrative Ondi Timoner film, opens at the Cinépolis Chelsea in New York and Landmark’s NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles (Samuel Goldwyn Films acquired the biopic’s North American rights in June). Timoner worked on Mapplethorpe over 12 years, writing 58 drafts of the script after she optioned a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich in 2006 (writer Mikko Alanne joined the project in 2009).

Matt Smith was relatively unknown to American audiences when Timoner was casting, as The Crown had not yet been released on Netflix. It was Timoner’s son, at the time just nine years old, who suggested the actor to his mother for the lead role in her film. “My son was a big Doctor Who fan, and one day he was watching TV and said, ‘That’s who you should cast,’” Timoner tells The Hollywood Reporter. (Smith played the title role on the iconic BBC series between 2010 and 2013). “I didn’t see the connection at all; I just thought, that’s not the guy I’m writing.”

Two weeks later, Timoner received a phone call: It was Smith’s agent, who said the actor had looked at the role and wanted to meet. “That was of course odd and interesting, and I thought, maybe I should have this lunch,” she says. “The man I met that day had the mercurial gravitas I was writing, so I asked him to read [for the part], and that was just jaw-dropping.” 

Joining Smith in the cast is Marianne Rendon as punk rocker Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s first friend and lover after he moved to New York City (Smith documented their relationship in the 2010 bestseller, Just Kids, but did not participate in Timoner’s film), and John Benjamin Hickey as Sam Wagstaff, an art collector who was both lover and benefactor of the photographer.

“John and Matt had a very natural chemistry and a similar dynamic to the roles they were playing – Robert looked at Sam as sort of a father figure, and it was easy to see that Matt looked up to John as well,” Timoner says. “And Marianne Rendon was just a gift: We were in talks with another actress for quite some time, but ultimately she felt she didn’t have enough prep time, and then I had only a week or two to find my Patti. Marianne, it turned out, had lived next door to Patti and kind of knew her and really captured her energy.” 

The film explores the Queens-born Mapplethorpe's life from the moment he decided to escape Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and ROTC training, choosing instead the life of a New York artist. While he enjoyed commercial success via celebrity portraits and photographs of flowers--seemingly innocent, though the lines of petals and pistils made sensuous, erotic statements--Mapplethorpe offset that artful and seemingly harmless work with a darker side, primarily his uncompromising nudes and his exploration of the BDSM subculture of 1960s and '70s New York. Such unabashed risk-taking led to controversy, an idea that hit its zenith during the 1988-89 traveling show, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment." 

Seven photographs, all from Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” of nudes and homoerotic images, drew intense ire and were deemed offensive by conservatives, who called for the elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts, which had partially funded the exhibition. Amid the uproar and protests on both sides of the conversation, the Washington, D.C. tour stop for “The Perfect Moment” was cancelled. Mapplethorpe, however, never witnessed this moment: Three months prior, on March 9, 1989, he died of complications from HIV/AIDS at the age of 42.

Mapplethorpe enjoyed sold-out screenings when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival; more than anything, Timoner is hoping that the biopic hasn’t exhausted its New York audience prior to its March 1 release. And how might the film influence thoughts about the man and his work, 30 years after his death?

“Most of all, I want people to understand that within every artist you’ll find a vulnerable human being who is trying to say something," says Timoner. "Robert Mapplethorpe was led into a world that we deemed at that time to be obscene, but he was desperate for us to see the beauty that he saw. And because of a very strict, Catholic upbringing, you also could say he was desperate to be loved. He wasn’t just the prince of darkness everyone thought he was; he took risks to say, ‘Look how beautiful this is.’ Maybe he also was saying, ‘If you love this, perhaps you’ll love me as well.’”