Robert Mapplethorpe profoundly changed the way Americans thought about photography in his short 42 years. Now, as the 25th anniversary of his death approaches, a new exhibition will give the public an opportunity to debate whether his work is still relevant in pop culture.
Mr. Mapplethorpe has already cemented his reputation before he died in 1989 from complications related to AIDS: His images, nearly all black-and-white, are nearly all arresting. A few are overtly disquieting, such as the pictures of New York’s S&M scene. Others are reserved, such as the portrait of a young Patti Smith that graced the cover of her debut album “Horses.”
Many of those memorable photographs will be brought together in “Robert Mapplethorpe: Saints and Sinners,” which opens Dec. 14 at Sean Kelly Gallery in Chelsea.
The show will mark another retrospective of Mr. Mapplethorpe’s images, a traveling exhibition titled “The Perfect Moment” that never made its way to where it was planned—the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Well known in the nation’s capital, the gallery was set to host the exhibition during the summer after the photographer’s death but canceled the tour after a congressional outcry over the sexually charged pictures.
“The Perfect Moment” “was a lightning rod for the culture wars of the 1980s,” said Sean Kelly, who owns the gallery.
“His work is synonymous of what went on at that time,” Mr. Kelly added, “and incredibly important to art.”
In his daring way, Mr. Mapplethorpe raised the question of what is art and offered a different definition—for both his fellow artists and the broader public. Today, the question is about the late photographer himself: Is his work still relevant?
The answer may be yes, based simply on his lingering presence in pop culture. Last year, actor James Franco posed as the late photographer in a series of images published in a German edition of GQ, and in 2006, a Mapplethorpe image of a haloed Andy Warhol sold at auction for almost $650,000, more than double its estimate. In 2010, Ms. Smith, who lived with Mr. Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel, released “Just Kids,” a memoir that chronicled their friendship.
“While times have changed in certain ways since the controversies of the 1990s, Mapplethorpe’s artworks continue to be relevant with broader and broader influences upon not only the viewing public, but many young and emerging artists,” said Michael Ward Stout, who heads the late photographer’s estate.
“You can think of Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, ” said Mr. Kelly, citing two other pop icons who died at young ages. “Because Mapplethorpe had such a potent and powerful existence, he sort of stays young in the imagination.”
The exhibition at Mr. Kelly’s space will include 54 black-and-white silver gelatin photographs— 27 pairs of photographs, a format that Mr. Kelly said puts “into a very sharp light all the dichotomies of Mapplethorpe’s work.” Prices range from $8,500 to about $125,000.
The couplings include a male figure clad in a rubber suit, juxtaposed with a high-heeled foot. “You start to ask yourself which one of these two quasi-fetishistic experiences is acceptable,” Mr. Kelly said. “Is it more acceptable for society to expect a woman to wear very uncomfortable shoes that fetishizes her in a certain way?”
Not all of Mr. Mapplethorpe’s work is sexually charged. Later in his career, the photographer also shot inanimate objects, such as flowers, and those that showed the human body in almost classical forms.
“It came down to physical mobility in the end,” Mr. Kelly said of the photographs that Mr. Mapplethorpe shot as he drew closer to death. When he was very sick and couldn’t leave the studio, his circle of influences and appetites was reduced to the ambit of the studio.”
One paired set shows a photo of a smoking gun with a portrait of a tattered American flag flapping in the wind. “It could be a moment of optimism and [about the] winning of the West,” Mr. Kelly said of the contrast. “Or in light of Sandy Hook, it could be a huge indictment of gun culture in America.”
He added: “The pairings allow viewers to answer the question for themselves. It’s not Mapplethorpe’s answer, but the viewer’s answer, that matters.”