The subtitle of the unflinching documentary, Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, comes from Senator Jesse Helms, enemy of free expression, hallmark of our democracy. Bookending the movie about the photographer who came of age in the '60's and died at age 42 of AIDS in 1989, the senator's words are meant to denigrate the art of one of the era's most gifted photographers, and to usher in a new era of conservative repression. In fact, if you look at the pictures as instructed--and they are amply provided in this rich film to air on April 4 on HBO, you will see classic harmonies of shapes, genitals posed as objects of design, pistils and lilies so idealized, flowers exude an austere eroticism. Original and emblematic of the bygone moment from which the demimonde portraits emerged, Mapplethorpe's work is simply beautiful.
The man, an early beau and comrade in bohemia of Patti Smith is immortalized in her romantic view in her 2010 best selling memoir Just Kids. The sober view in "Look at the Pictures" shows the struggle to wrest the gay artist from his Catholic youth, and from a poverty that may not have nurtured him if not for Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr., a curator and collector who became his lover and promoter. From the film's vantage, Mapplethorpe's choices seem all the more remarkable. Many are interviewed: fellow residents of Bond Street Brice and Helen Marden, Fran Lebowitz, his well hung models, prim by comparison assistants, and members of his middle class family who testify to the shock of seeing his devilish self-portrait with bull whip coming out of his rectum.
A Time Warner Center premiere last week brought out an eclectic group: Chloe Sevigny, Carson Daly, Parker Posey, Stella Schnabel, and Robert's younger brother Edward Mapplethorpe, himself an artist who worked at his brother's studio and, to hear him tell it in the film, was something of a rival. HBO's Sheila Nevins brought directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato to this subject, and then producer Katharina Otto- Bernstein, who made the excellent documentary Absolute Wilson about art/music impresario Robert Wilson. Robert Mapplethorpe came from a time when the shabby menacing environs of The Mineshaft had the allure of a temple of worship. Bravo to HBO for nurturing this film portrait of a bold, subversive, and essential artist endangered during a deadly time.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.