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LACMA, Getty Embrace Gay Sadomasochism, Throw Down on Kinky Robert Mapplethorpe Archive Worth Over $30 Million

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Mon, Feb 7, 2011 at 5:00 PM
click to enlarge From Robert Mapplethorpe's 39-photo "X, Y and Z Portfolios," now in the clutches of LACMA and the Getty - LIVE AUCTIONEERS
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  • From Robert Mapplethorpe's 39-photo "X, Y and Z Portfolios," now in the clutches of LACMA and the Getty

Robert Mapplethorpe's work -- mostly black and white, mostly from the grittiest cultural back-alleys of the 1970s and '80s -- is either high art or expensive pornography, depending on who you talk to.

As of today, though, the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Getty have made their collective position clear: In the first-ever joint acquisition between the two museums, well over $30 million in Mapplethorpe photos, sculptures and random paperstuffs have been secured in the Getty vaults in black archival boxes, waiting to unleash their incredible kinkiness upon the (already oversexed) Los Angeles public.

Among the more controversial pieces:

Mapplethorpe's X, Y and Z Portfolios, a series of photos taken from 1978 to 1981, depicting homoerotic sadomasochism, floral still life and naked black men, respectively. Each portfolio contains 13 images.

LACMA curator Britt Salvesen explains that the material's incredible value is partly derived from Mapplethorpe's forward-thinking choice to print only 25 editions of each Portfolio -- and 25 was pretty much his maximum, for any piece.

"It's a market-based decision, and he was very ahead of the curve on that, as a photographer -- because up until the mid '70s, there wasnt really a fine-art market for photography" says Salvesen. "He made a decision early on to create rarity in his work."

That's why, even though the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation donated an undisclosed portion of the new L.A. collection free of charge, LACMA and the Getty still shelled out a large chunk of the $30 million (they won't say how much).

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS at the young age of 43, but managed to piss off a long line of staunchy museum curators before his untimely death. Now that he's based in Los Angeles, we wanted to know: Will any of his work (think foreign objects in nether regions) be deemed too controversial for public viewing, a la Cincinnati Museum circa 1990?

"I don't think we would have any reluctance to show any of the artwork," says LACMA press officer Barbara Pflaumer. "At some point, I'm sure we will get into the homoerotic, the sadomasochistic exhibitions."

click to enlarge Robert Mapplethorpe (right) and his lover, art collector Sam Wagstaff, in 1974
  • Robert Mapplethorpe (right) and his lover, art collector Sam Wagstaff, in 1974

Curators at the two museums will duke it out over who gets to show what over the next few years, seeing as they have equal monetary stakes in the collection; Salveson says they'll sit down together and find themes among the 2,000 photographs for possible exhibits at both art houses.

"We're flexible; we'll keep each other informed," says Salveson.

However, the Getty Research Institute will have exclusive access to the "archive" portion of the deal: sculptures, drawings, personal and business documents, etc.

The entire gift-purchase package, from the official presser:

The archive is vast, containing almost 2,000 examples of editioned Mapplethorpe prints; over 200 unique works by Mapplethorpe (drawings, hand-painted collages and assemblages, some of which combine found objects with photographs or Polaroids), approximately 1,100 uneditioned silver gelatin prints, 100 Polaroid works, 120,000 negatives with 6,000 related contact sheets covering the artist's fine-art work, portrait commissions and other photography; Mapplethorpe's 1978 film Still Moving (featuring Patti Smith) and his 1984 video Lady (featuring Lisa Lyon); a selection of works by other artists that were owned by or otherwise associated with Mapplethorpe or his foundation (including photographs of Mapplethorpe or his artwork by contemporaries such as Lynn Davis); several hundred test prints and variations for editioned and non-editioned prints; and videotaped interviews with the artist.

Also included is an array of documents relating to the artist's life and work: exhibition-related materials such as correspondence; press clippings; exhibition information; inventories; publications; documentation of the landmark 1990 Cincinnati trial (including video tapes and interviews); personal correspondence with the artist's intimates and friends such as Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, John McKendry and other contemporaries; important documentation concerning Mapplethorpe's artistic and commercial career, including original business records of his portrait commissions and commercial assignments and his editioned and unique art works; visual documentation of Mapplethorpe's early installations, multi-media constructions and jewelry designs; over 3,500 Polaroids shot to document the composition, lighting and technical specifications of Mapplethorpe's still lifes and portrait sittings; a complete library of exhibition catalogues and other publications reproducing Mapplethorpe images; and comprehensive media materials covering the NEA, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, and The Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center controversies that arose shortly after the artist died in 1989.

Wonder if brand-new L.A. art giant "The Broad" will ever get this sexy?

Kind words are in high circulation between all museums and foundations involved, and Getty director David Bomford says he's particularly excited to be uniting Mapplethorpe's work with the museum's existing Sam Wagstaff collection, as the two were lovers and artistic partners.

The director's glowing statement:

"Both Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff contributed greatly to the field of photography, and adding Mapplethorpe's work to Wagstaff's collection is a fitting tribute to them both. The acquisition also supports our philosophy of collecting individual artists in depth, so the chance to share a substantial part of Mapplethorpe's oeuvre with LACMA is a wonderful opportunity for us."

And finally -- the photos. Here are a few of Mapplethorpe's more PG-rated pieces -- the ones museum officials decided to include in their press packet (tsk tsk).

click to enlarge ALL MAPPLETHORPE WORKS © ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION. USED BY PERMISSION.
  • All Mapplethorpe Works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
click to enlarge ALL MAPPLETHORPE WORKS © ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION. USED BY PERMISSION.
  • All Mapplethorpe Works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
click to enlarge ALL MAPPLETHORPE WORKS © ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION. USED BY PERMISSION.
  • All Mapplethorpe Works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

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