In the April-May issue of Bookforum, Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly, an acclaimed biography of David Wojnarowicz, reviews Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, a book that gathers the artist's unpublished photos, drawings, paintings, and other ephemera. Carr writes that this treasure trove throws new light on an artist who is too often seen through the lens of the early-Nineties "culture wars," when his work became the target of homophobic censorship in the US. Here's an excerpt:
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, published in conjunction with a new catalogue of his photographs, gave me a whole new Mapplethorpe story to think about. For starters, this trove of ephemera is rather startling in its difference from the artist’s oeuvre. Here is the chaos never evident in the art he chose to show. Think of a classic Mapplethorpe like Ken Moody and Robert Sherman: two bald men sandwiched together in profile, one black and one white. The photo is elegant, formal, and says nothing about the personality of either man. In fact, it seems almost sculptural. The Archive reveals a possible inspiration behind the picture (a photo by James Abbe) and also makes clear Mapplethorpe’s long-standing interest in sculpture. Before his photography career began, he even tried his hand at it, making small surreal objects, like a leather-clad hand attached to a cylindrical cage filled with dice. Mostly, though, he created assemblages in his loft—helter-skelter arrangements crafted from junk found on the street (furniture, flags, pots and pans, a sword, etc.), cheap religious icons, even his own clothing. They embody disorder, as if to signal that Mapplethorpe hadn’t yet found his focus.
He did not keep journals, but the contact sheets, correspondence, student work, gallery cards, non-editioned prints, and photos he collected all help make clear what Mapplethorpe’s project was and how he figured out what it was. While he did beautiful celebrity portraits, for example, there’s little evidence of it here, apart from Polaroid test shots. But The Archive does include his early and mostly unknown work with queer subject matter: a collage for the cover of Gay Power, “New York’s First Homosexual Newspaper,” and one in which two men engaged in fellatio are barely visible behind a red acrylic “X,” and sculptures made from his own underwear wrapped around empty picture frames. We see that his most important work had to do with “elevating the sexual male image into the mainstream,” as Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick put it in their accompanying text. He saw not just homoeroticism but gay sadomasochism as valid subjects for art, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for his radical approach to this subject matter.
Image: Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (“Sam—I love you and I need you—hurry home”), 1974. Via allmagnews.com.