A photo of a guy pissing into another guy’s mouth, or of a bullwhip sticking out of someone’s ass, wouldn’t raise many eyebrows in the porn-saturated gay male community. But when those and other homoerotic works by Robert Mapplethorpe appeared in the art world in 1989, the same year he died of AIDS at age 42, they propelled a Washington, D.C. museum and the U.S. Congress into a censoring frenzy. The following year, a Cincinnati museum director was actually indicted and forced on trial over displaying this work. Now you’ll get a chance to see for yourself exactly what the fuss was all about, as all 13 of Mapplethorpe’s incendiary photos from this series—titled Portfolio X—are being shown in a Chelsea gallery, and you can be sure our LGBT gallery tour will be there front and center. Not only is it Mapplethorpe’s most famous (or rather “infamous”) set of works, historically speaking it is one of the most important gay-themed art collections of all time.
Born in Floral Park, Queens, in 1946, Robert Mapplethorpe majored in graphic arts at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, though he dropped out in 1969 before completing. The works in Portfolio X were shot in the 1970s, at a relatively early stage of Mapplethorpe’s career, and published in a book in 1978. At the time, his work was mostly portraiture, much of it involving homoerotic S/M imagery taken in his studio. Later he became known as well for nude photos of African-Americans—male and female—and also of flowers.
In the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts funded Mapplethorpe’s Project X photos to be part of a larger traveling museum exhibit titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art. One stop was supposed to be the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., which had agreed to display the work sight unseen. But when religious right-wing groups such as the American Family Association raised a stink, the Corcoran board of directors decided to cancel the exhibit. (Footnote: Lowell Blair Nesbitt, a pop artist and long-time friend of Mapplethorpe’s, later decided to revoke a $1.5 million bequest to the Corcoran Museum he had made in his will.)
In 1990, The Perfect Moment traveled to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center. Hours after the show opened, the museum and its director Dennis Barrie were indicted for pandering obscenity, and they went on trial. Ultimately they were acquitted, but, had a conviction resulted, it would have been a landmark censorship verdict sending chills throughout the international art scene.
At the same time, the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, spearheaded by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Newt Gingrich, went on a rampage against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding Mapplethorpe’s S/M works, as well as straight artist Andres Serrano’s equally infamous Piss Christ (a stunningly gorgeous photo of a crucifix submerged in urine, that my LGBT gallery tour saw two years ago in another Chelsea gallery). In 1994, when the Republicans took over both chambers of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts was stripped of funding to its lowest level in years, and it has not recovered since. Talk about artwork that has had an impact on society!
Mapplethorpe’s Project X photos will not be the only stop on our October 16 Gay & Lesbian gallery tour, which will include at least four shows by LGBT artists, out of 7 exhibits we visit total. Except for the Mapplethorpe show, all the exhibits will be completely new artwork created in the last year or two. Be there or be square, darlings.
Rafael Risemberg, Ph.D.
Founder and Director
New York Gallery Tours