Robert Mapplethorpe is an enormously complicated figure — that’s no less true today than it was 30 years ago when the attention of the art-consuming world was rapt with the progress of the Cincinnati obscenity trial surrounding his work. Born in 1946, the photographer rose to fame in the 1970s as an unabashed and celebratory visual documentarian of New York City’s gay community, one of the first prominent artists to elevate to the level of museum gallery depictions of a group many Americans still regarded with hostility. Later in the decade, he gained still more attention — and in the eyes of his detractors, notoriety — for often-explicit depictions of his friends in the City’s underground BDSM community, bringing his technical mastery and fascination with classical forms to bear upon subjects some welcomed and others would have prefered were left unaddressed.
In the midst of all this, Mapplethorpe was delving deeply into the genres of self-portraiture, still life, portraits and the nude, honing his craft. In this latter category he often foregrounded the Black body, cherishing it for its beauty and comparing it to bronze sculpture. But this treatment of his Black subjects (particularly his omission of their faces) sometimes came under scrutiny: Famously, the poet Essex Hemphill offered a withering critique of what he saw as Mapplethorpe’s fetishization of Black men and the museum world’s embrace of it. He wrote in his essay “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” that “what is insulting and endangering to Black men is Mapplethorpe’s conscious determination that the faces, the heads, and by extension, the minds and experiences of some of his Black subjects are not as important as close-up shots of their cocks.”
But by the time of his death in 1989 as a result of complications from HIV/AIDS, Mapplethorpe had developed into one of the most significant photographers of the late-20th century. That same year, and spilling over into the next, Mapplethorpe was catapulted into household-name status when, first, the Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled a planned exhibit of his series “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” following political pressure from social conservatives, and then when the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie, were brought to trial on charges of obscenity due to their booking of the same series. While Barrie and the museum were ultimately acquitted by jury, the trial nevertheless represented a crucial moment in the fights surrounding artistic freedom, censorship and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts that raged throughout the decade. Caught up in the vicious opening salvos of the culture wars that were to consume much of the ’90s, in the eyes of many Mapplethorpe’s work came to occupy a social place similar to Serrano’s “Piss Christ” — provocative, stirring, simultaneously revered and reviled.
So how do we reckon with an artistic legacy like that?
Two weeks ago the University Musical Society presented a performance attempting to get at that very question. The world premiere of the fully-staged version of “Triptych [Eyes of One on Another],” a new work co-commissioned by UMS, the performance aimed to re-contextualize Mapplethorpe’s work by juxtaposing his photographs with words and music in a theatrical context. In so doing the creators of “Triptych” demonstrated for the millionth time the power of collapsing the barriers we have erected between art forms, and how interdisciplinary art opens up fruitful aesthetic and social dialogues.
Directed by theater artist Kaneza Schaal, and with music by Bryce Dessner — a composer, performer and curator many know as a guitarist in the rock band The National — and a libretto by multi-disciplinary artist Korde Arrington Tuttle, “Triptych” doesn’t cohere into a narrative in the traditional sense. Instead, the performance was structured (as the name implies) into three principal sections, interweaving texts from numerous sources — including the obscenity trial, Mapplethorpe’s close friend Patti Smith and Essex Hemphill — into a series of songs held together by Dessner’s polyglot musical style. Throughout the course of all this, Mapplethorpe’s photographs were projected, massively enlarged and sometimes rapidly changing, onto screens above and around the performers as lighting effects swept across the stage and at times even illuminated the audience. This interplay of movement and light sustained the emotional state of the show throughout: A particularly striking effect featured a bar of searing white light descending from the ceiling, as if for a moment heaven opened up. In lieu of an overt narrative arc, the audience was thus presented with fleeting impressions and emotionally resonant scenes which feel as if they lead naturally from one to another but are difficult to string together into a plot.
The performance relied upon the formidable artistic talents of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (who by now certainly needs no introduction from me), as well as two additional vocalists, Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson, and instrumentalists affiliated with the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The vocalists, in addition to singing Dessner’s score, took on a semi-dramatic role as well, repositioning themselves on the stage throughout the course of the performance, equipped with rolling music stands.
“It’s a wonderful and rich score,” Brad Wells, the director of Roomful of Teeth, told me in an interview the afternoon before the performance. As I learned from him over the course of our conversation, the project has been in the works for quite a while — the possibility of the Teeth and Dessner collaborating on a Mapplethorpe work was first broached around four years ago — and the piece finally materialized into a complete work in the last several months.
“In Paris we read a first draft of the score (in December), and then in January at MASS MoCA we started the full on (rehearsal process),” Wells said. Over the course of this getting the piece together the Teeth and Wells have had the chance to offer feedback in a way that doesn’t ordinarily occur.
“It was great,” Wells said. “We’d never had that kind of opportunity to play with and voice our ideas with a composer before. Or rather, we have in the sort of gestational process but not once you have a complete working draft.”
The music Dessner composed for the work ultimately drew from a number of disparate sources, including Renaissance polyphony. A recomposed version of a madrigal by the Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi even serves as the opening of the entire work, a move which is at once strangely familiar and just off-kilter enough to create a pleasant feeling of surprise.
When I asked Dessner about this after the concert, he explained it as his way of creating a musical analog to Mapplethorpe’s own fascination with and imitation of Renaissance forms. By recomposing Monteverdi, Dessner was mimicking Mapplethorpe’s own practice of recreating, for instance, scenes from Caravaggio. I imagine that in this way the composer could bring himself closer to his subject. It was another way of wrestling with Mapplethorpe’s legacy.
When I left the concert I had a lot of unanswered questions — about the meaning of Mapplethorpe’s work, about the role art like his plays in public life — but ultimately this didn’t bother me. The place Mapplethorpe holds in our culture has shifted dramatically in the last 30 years. When once it was the subject of trial and censorship, today it lives around us: Just the other night I noticed for the first time some of his more famous photographs decorating the walls of Ann Arbor’s own aut Bar. But we don’t have to have settled the question of what such a complicated figure can mean to us. It can be enough to let his work inhabit our thoughts, to let it share the spaces of our lives. It can be enough to look.