Robert Mapplethorpe's Work Fully Uncensored in New HBO Doc
Gird your loins. Inside Deep Throat directors Fretnon Bailey and Randy Barbato are breaking the surface of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life, career, and lasting influence in the first feature documentary since his death, MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES. The film rolls back through the years of the artist’s work, from his illicit photographs of New York BDSM in the late ’60s and ’70s, to his prim society portraits and flower photography–the duality of his downtown and uptown exhibits, respectively.
Frenton and Barbato push the film to the boundaries of Mapplethrope’s work, exploring the fringes of fetishism, sexuality, and unflinching nudity. It features excerpts from influencers like Sam Wagstaff and Lisa Lyon, conversations with friends and family, and original interviews with colleagues such as Mary Boone, Brooke Shields, and Fran Leibowitz.
Just a year before his death, a Mapplethorpe doc titled Arena debuted on PBS, with his provocative photos curtailed to suit a PBS audience. Alternatively, the upcoming doc takes a look at the more taboo images of Mapplethorpe’s career, and pulls them front and center, “without blurs, without snickers — in other words, exactly as the artist intended.” The film tackles his unhinged, unhesitant shots of the NYC subculture of BDSM, photographs which largely ignited an ongoing national debate surrounding public funding to “obscene” arts.
The film is the first truly uncensored look at the career of the New York City-based artist, and a positive stand against discretion in art. The unveiled BDSM portraits are revisited in the film, framed by the city that nurtured it, and dually served as a battle ground for the ongoing culture war. In the years that followed Mapplethorpe, New York City was one of many to join the debate over art funding–weighing artist expression against social offense in the years that followed.
Shortly after his death, the National Endowment for the Arts targeted the NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes) by vetoing art grants to the performance artists purely on the basis of content. Ten years after Mapplethorpe’s death, and the subsequent legal scuffle of the NEA Four, Mayor Giuliani objected and threatened to slash a provocative exhibit at the Brooklyn Art Museum from the collection of Charles Saatchi. He found Chris Ofili’s portrayal of an African Virgin Mary, haloed by lots of little butts and excrement, to be anti-Catholic.
Even just this week, the MET was sued for allegedly racist 16th century portraits of an all white Jesus, and the white-washed depictions of early religion. However, the museum justified the exhibition of the art, deeming it “important, historically and artistically.” Museum spokesperson Elyse Topalian followed the statement, saying “When they were painted, it was typical for artists to depict subjects with the same identity as the local audience. This phenomenon occurs in many other cultures, as well.” Justin Joseph, the man suing the museum, invoked the Civil Rights Act of 1960 in his defense. The issue is still a pretty hairy, unclear mess, but the museum’s defiance and the film’s unfiltered look at Mapplethorpe’s work speaks to the more pressing issue of expressing artistry without censorship.
The film will debut April 16th, just in time for two LA housed retrospectives at the Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the mean time, check out HBO’s release of the doc, and channel your BDSM deviant for the upcoming film and exhibits.
Images via Static 1, Carlos Motta, i-D Magazine.