Several months before painter Alice Neel died in 1984, she sat for a portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe.
The photographer put her in front of an almost-plain background, as he habitually did with his subjects, and directed his lights toward her aged face. Her white hair drifted over her soft skin and floated out ethereally over the bricks on Mapplethorpe's wall. But when he zoomed in for a close-up, Neel did something unexpected.
She closed her eyes and opened her mouth. Her slack face turned into a kind of death mask, foreshadowing her death just a few months later. Unadorned and unornamented, the picture became a riveting final portrait of a portrait painter.
The Neel photo is one of the most authentic and revealing of the 104 pictures on view in Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits at the Center for Creative Photography, a traveling show that originated at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Either by accident or Neel's own design, she escaped the slickness of Mapplethorpe's typical portraits. The same cannot be said about many of the subjects pictured in the large exhibition.
In the late '70s and '80s, hundreds of artists, dealers, actors, writers and trendies of all stripes made the pilgrimage to Mapplethorpe's studio in downtown New York. He had become a celebrity photographer par excellence. Clients pictured in this show include Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, David Byrne, Truman Capote, Bruce Chatwin, Leo Castelli, Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag.
Mapplethorpe's customers liked his bad-boy rep as a photographer of the gay sexual underground, but he wasn't out to shock in his celebrity pictures. He made sure that his subjects looked their best, even going so far as to hire makeup artists and hairdressers.
Too many of the resulting portraits are blank and shallow. Some have no business being in an art museum. The portrait of actress Madeline Kahn could as easily be a movie-studio headshot. She's dressed in a black turtleneck and heavily made up, and her blow-dry hair billows out glamorously against a black background.
The Paloma Picasso picture looks like an advertisement for her jewelry, as even guest curator Gordon Baldwin acknowledges. Viewed in profile, the designer is dressed in a strapless gown; her shiny baubles are wrapped in a giant chain around her neck. Susan Sarandon, is, unsurprisingly, beautiful and glamorous, and so is Isabella Rossellini. An image of a topless Richard Gere is truly cheesy cheesecake.
So what, exactly, is Mapplethorpe doing in the CCP, that esteemed repository of leading 20th century photographers? Well, not all of the portraits are as banal as those of the movie stars. Not many are as interesting as Neel's, either. But Mapplethorpe was gifted at composition, and his best portraits are rigorous, elegant and austere.
He worked exclusively in black and white, and indoors; his work sometimes takes on a classical sculptural quality. His figures and faces are all shadow and light, sharply edged. And his gelatin silver prints, turned out by a series of studio assistants who were also photographers, are finely done.
Mapplethorpe trained himself to photograph people during his relationship with the punk-rock poet Patti Smith. In the early '70s, after he left art school at Pratt, he took many hundreds of Polaroids of her. One of his best—and most famous—pictures is the portrait of Smith that graces the cover of her 1975 album, Horses. Dressed in black and white, she's long and lean. Her young face peers out coolly and self-confidently from under her mane of dark hair. As Baldwin notes, she and Mapplethorpe were "conspirators in cool."
By 1976, he had a Hasselblad camera, given to him by his new patron and partner, Sam Wagstaff, and Mapplethorpe turned into a serious photog. When he wasn't trying to flatter his subjects, he got interesting results. His 1983 portrait of Kathy Acker, a subversive Lower East Side writer and performance artist, is nearly full-body, from her head to her knees. Acker covers her face with her hands, but her bare breasts are sneaking out from under her bent arms. The rest of her body is encased in skintight black Lycra. Black against gray, she becomes a minimalist figure, a human exclamation point.
In some portraits of dancers and choreographers, Mapplethorpe allowed his subjects to move. Lucinda Childs, the groundbreaking choreographer, holds her expressive hands up high, next to her head, and they dart and dance in the air. Bill T. Jones does a full-body dance in front of the camera. He's moving so fast, curator Baldwin notes, that one of his arms is slightly blurred.
Writer William Burroughs is tellingly pictured with his typewriter and his desk. Actress Grace Jones cheerfully submitted to having her body painted by Keith Haring, street painter of the East Village.
There are only a few hints of Mapplethorpe's predilection for sexual subjects. A 1979 double portrait of an S&M couple pictures them in their chains and leather, endearingly posed in their utterly conventional living room. Cynthia Slater, described by Baldwin as a "bisexual dominatrix," stands bare-breasted in front of her equipment, a series of belts and buckles.
Mapplethorpe, of course, was best-known by the public and certain angry senators for his homoerotic imagery. His rep was sealed after his death, when the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., canceled a planned show of his homoerotic works, The Perfect Moment. The director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was then arrested on obscenity charges for displaying the same work.
Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibition, most notoriously, featured a self-portrait of the artist with a bullwhip jammed into his anus. In another, one man urinated into another's mouth. Mapplethorpe's afterhours turf was the New York gay demimonde in the age before AIDS, and he photographed its sometimes shocking practices in gorgeous black and white. The sheer artistry of the sex photos helped acquit Dennis Barrie, the Cincinnati museum director. At his trial, one outside art expert accurately described Mapplethorpe's compositions as "very ordered, classical." Another aptly noted the "tension between the physical beauty of the photographs and the brutal nature of what's going on in it."
A lack of that tension is precisely the problem with the bland portraits in the CCP show. These people are practiced in front of the camera, and they're as slick as the mature Mapplethorpe style. Among these blown-dried celebrities and über-cool artists, one longs for the shock of the bullwhip. Who cares, really, about one more portrait of the rich and famous?
The historical value of the collection will be more apparent in 100 years. Its depiction of the self-confident, pre-AIDS New York art scene is poignant, considering that the disease would before long ravage its denizens. Death would come too young to many of these saucy posers, including Mapplethorpe himself.
The show begins with a 1975 portrait of the artist as a young man, handsome and plucky, ready to ascend to art-world heights. He stretches one arm out, mimicking the crucifixions of his Catholic youth, but he seems far too cheerful to submit to an execution.
Just 13 years later, he made a portrait of himself near death. It's not quite the death mask that Alice Neel's is, but his face is old for its years, ravaged and thin. In his hand, he holds a cane topped by a death head, a leering skeleton that joins Mapplethorpe in staring out at the viewer. It reminds me of those cemetery epitaphs that mock the living. "As you are now," it seems to say, "so once was I ..."