Comments/Context: This small show of Robert Mapplethorpe's self portraits is a focused subset of the work he made in the last decade of the his life. It gathers together many of the self portraits he took in the 1980s, leaving out the early Polaroids and the bullwhip in the ass aggressively sexual pictures of the 1970s. What this edit gives up in inclusiveness and comprehensiveness, it gains in tight attention, as it allows us to see the small, evolving changes in his artistic approach, played out in a handful of important images.
In Mapplethorpe's early 1980s self portraits, he still has his swagger on, but his eye has turned to the nuances of gender roles. He casts himself as the effortlessly cool rebel with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, as an androgynous bare chested male in eye makeup, and as a diva in drag wrapped in a lush fur collar. The pared down classicism of his staging allows him to shift from persona or persona like a chameleon without losing a sense of control, trying on identities and challenging conventional attitudes within the confines of quiet formal elegance.
Just a year or two later finds Mapplethorpe exploring background geometries and more overt iconography. He stands in front of layered squares (the graphic design looking a bit dated now) and uses the triangulating lines of the back of his hair and the trim of his leather jacket to precisely echo a sharply angled striped backdrop. In another work, he tackles religion with a bold pentagram wall hanging, posing as an outlaw armed with a tommy gun. His self portrait with horns follows this thread, spookily lighting himself from below and casting himself as either a satyr or a devil.
The last self portraits, made in the years before he died, find him turning inward and looking at himself with more vulnerability. His many roles collapse into a blurred, shape shifting image of his face in motion, and a portrait in a tuxedo is somehow haunting rather than debonair, the last disguise in which we might expect to find him. By 1988, he stares at the camera with unvarnished openness, his face drawn and gaunt with disease, armed with a cane topped by an ebony skull. He seems to float out of the darkness, looking death straight in the eye, confronting himself as much as the camera.
Even in the span of the dozen pictures on view here, it is possible to see both continuity and change in Mapplethorpe's work. Even as the content of his self portraits began to evolve, his eye for classical harmony never faltered, his forms always clean and refined, regardless of his emotional intentions. There's underlying power in every one of these photographs, and together they pack a durably surprising wallop.
- Mapplethorpe Foundation site (here)