Britt Salvesen, LACMA curator and co-curator of the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium.

Interview with Britt Salvesen and Paul Martineau, Co-curators of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium explores the life, work, and legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe, presenting his best-known photographs alongside work that has never been published. It will draw on the acquisition of The Robert Mapplethorpe Archive by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The exhibition is conceived in two parts to reflect this collaboration and will be presented concurrently at LACMA and the Getty (March–July 2016), after which it will be consolidated as a single exhibition to travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (August 2016–July 2017) and Art Gallery of New South Wales (September–November 2017).

The following interview with the exhibition’s co-curators, Britt Salvesen, Curator in the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and the Department of Prints and Drawings at LACMA, and Paul Martineau, ‎Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, describes the archive from which the exhibition draws and the inspiration for key themes in the show.

This exhibition draws on the 2011 acquisition of The Robert Mapplethorpe Archive by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), J. Paul Getty Museum, and Getty Research Institute (GRI). Would you please provide an overview of the materials in the archive?

The acquisition covers more than 2,000 works of art by the artist, including gelatin silver prints of virtually every photograph he editioned, a large number of Polaroids and other unique objects, and portraits of Mapplethorpe by his contemporaries. 1,900 limited edition photographs and other works of art are housed at the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs, while GRI holds dozens of Polaroids and more than 200 objects, including drawings, hand-painted collages, and assemblages, some of which combine found objects with photographs or Polaroids. These works are jointly owned by the J. Paul Getty Trust and LACMA through a partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and partial purchase with funds provided by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation. GRI additionally houses extensive documentation of Mapplethorpe’s career, including personal correspondence with significant cultural figures of the period, studio records, clippings files, exhibition invitations, and working materials. 

How did the archive inform the exhibition’s key themes?

The archive revealed to us the full scope of Mapplethorpe’s work, from his earliest, pre-photographic constructions and collages to his final photographic statements and his careful efforts to define his body of work before he died. We wanted to show some less-known or previously unseen materials, as well as iconic images. We also wanted to point toward future research topics that the archive will yield.

In Los Angeles, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium will be divided into two separate presentations held concurrently at LACMA and the Getty. What will be the focus of each presentation?

Mapplethorpe’s work can be seen in terms of certain dichotomies: order and chaos, Apollonian and Dionysian.  LACMA’s presentation focuses more on the “chaotic” side of the equation, exploring the improvisational, experimental, and performative aspects of his art. The Getty Museum’s presentation is focused on Mapplethorpe’s highly-controlled camera work, emphasizing his disciplined studio practice, love of sculptural form, knowledge of art history, and dedication to the perfect gelatin silver print.

The overlap between the two presentations is as deliberate as the differences. Both shows include self-portraits and portraits of key figures in Mapplethorpe’s life, for example, Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, and Lisa Lyon. Importantly, both shows feature the sexually explicit imagery that first brought Mapplethorpe notoriety.

What information or objects will be new to visitors who have attended other Mapplethorpe retrospectives?

We think visitors will gain a better appreciation of Mapplethorpe’s awareness of, and impact on, the contemporary art world of his time. In his early work, he was inspired by Pop Art, performance art, as well as art history. When photography became his medium of choice, in the early 1970s, he sought to elevate it to the status of contemporary art. For him, the photograph was always an object, not merely an image to be reproduced. To this end, he created custom frames, maintained strict quality control over his prints, and experimented with various color processes. We think visitors who have only seen Mapplethorpe’s work in books will be impressed by the force and material presence of these objects.

We have also deployed Mapplethorpe’s own voice in the form of quotes throughout the galleries to promote greater understanding of the work by making the artist’s thoughts and motivations available to our visitors.

Did you learn anything while preparing for Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium that surprised you?

We have been impressed by Mapplethorpe’s determination and drive—he had vision, certainly, but also worked very hard to give it visual form and to make the connections necessary to get it seen by collectors and curators. This comes through clearly in the archive. Indeed, the archive wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t had this degree of self-consciousness about his legacy and the foresight to establish a foundation to preserve it.

What programs will be held in conjunction with the exhibition?

We will host the Los Angeles premiere of “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” (HBO Documentary Films) at LACMA on March 15.  LACMA will also present a conversation about Mapplethorpe’s depictions of African-American men with artist M. Lamar, and a gallery walk-through with artist Jesse Aron Green. Details of other programs are still being resolved.

Additionally, The Getty Museum will screen the 1988 documentary “Robert Mapplethorpe” (BBC Arena) on March 26. We will also offer a series of exhibition tours daily from May 3 to July 31, 2016, and a gallery course “The Erotic Male: From Classical Antiquity to Mapplethorpe” will be held on April 16.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium?

Mapplethorpe’s legacy remains powerful and relevant as our society embraces equal rights for all genders and sexual orientations. Because he refused to draw a line between his art and his life, he opened expressive avenues for all the artists who followed him. But no artist can be conclusively summed up in a single sentence or a single exhibition. Our two-part retrospective invites viewers to consider the complexities of Mapplethorpe’s work and his persona.