Robert Mapplethorpe at Guggenheim: In the Pit of Your Stomach

The photographer’s subversive works return to the museum with a yearlong two-part exhibition

Installation view: Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. (Photo: David Heald, courtesy Guggenheim Museum)

Currently the Guggenheim is showing part of their collection of works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, which comprises mainly his signature black and white erotic photography. Nestled in the center of a wall, in the middle of the display, is a trio of older pieces which are some of the last collages that he completed before moving fully into photography.


WHAT: Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now
WHERE: Guggenheim Museum, New York
WHEN: January 25 – July 10, 2019 (first part); July 24– January 5, 2020 (second part)


In the description next to the collages, which are erotic images of men behind spray painted mesh harvested from potato bags, Mapplethorpe is reported to have drawn his inspiration for the piece from an experience he had of seeing all-male pornography wrapped in cellophane at newsstands. That feeling of attraction, mystery, and transgression that he got in the pit of his stomach as a young art student was something that he would immediately make his goal to infuse into his works of art. In the Guggenheim’s diverse show of Mapplethorpe’s work, that feeling that he was after grips you and, while the grip may change its tension from time to time, refuses to let go.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois, 1982, Gelatin silver print, 38.7 x 38.6 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 96.4367, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation (photo courtesy of Guggenheim Museum).

The show brings older pieces like the one mentioned above into dialogue with works that would become part of the infamous “X portfolio” and the poignant and enigmatic “Y portfolio,” as well as numerous celebrity and self-portraits. This wide variety of material gives the initiate a well-rounded view of his oeuvre and immediately emphasizes the almost spiritual themes that run the course of Mapplethorpe’s artistic biography at the same time as it gives those who have some familiarity with his work a nuanced and captivating retrospective on the photographer and his most obsessed-over subjects.

The works are also arranged in such a way that you may find yourself at one moment looking at Polaroids of Candy Darling, only to come face to face with the photographer himself a few feet away in his 1988 self-portrait, only months away from his death. In the portrait, Mapplethorpe clutches a cane topped with a skull, his mien floating against the black background of the print.

On the other side of the show, a number of pictures of flowers are positioned in proximity to similarly photographed male sex organs in various states of arousal, reinforcing a characteristic tether in Mapplethorpe’s work between the supposedly pornographic and the traditionally chaste. These juxtapositions combined with the variety of works on display reinterpret and reconfigure but also reinforce the artist’s image in the twenty-first century.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Candy Darling, 1973, Four dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), in painted plastic mounts and acrylic frame, 9.5 x 7.1 cm each; 14.3 x 38.3 x 6.7 cm overall, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 95.4306, © The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. (photo courtesy Guggenheim Museum)

The second part of this yearlong exhibition, which will run from July 24 through January 5, 2020, will be dedicated to Mapplethorpe’s legacy featuring a selection of his photographs alongide works by other artists in the Guggenheim’s collection, such as Zaneli Muholi, Glenn Ligon, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Catherine Opie.

Joseph Boisvere

Joseph Boisvere lives in Brooklyn where he teaches English. His poetry has appeared in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review.

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