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  • Leila E. Cole

Focus: Perfection | Robert Mapplethorpe

Although arguably not for the faint of heart, Robert Mapplethorpe is a revolutionary of his time (and still today) — whose work reflects a deep appreciation for the human body and its potential to unlock carnal instincts. “Focus: Perfection - Robert Mapplethorpe” represents the late artist's first retrospective in Canada. Befitting of such a major exhibition, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is the only Canadian site for this erotic -but in like manner- sensational, presentation. A joint effort between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J. Paul Getty Museum, this influential journey of art is a monumental deal, especially considering it’s the first collective showing of Mapplethorpe’s body of work in North America, since the noteworthy exhibition “The Perfect Moment” (Philadelphia, 1988), which sparked national controversy, in the midst of the US Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. “I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.” Although Mapplethorpe’s approach to his subject matter was conscious yet very direct, his intention was entirely revolved around self expression, and a feeling of accountability to share stories through imagery. Stories of individuals, scenarios and sometimes societal taboos. “I don’t like the word ‘shocking’. I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before… I was in a position to take those photos. I felt an obligation to do them.” Becoming increasingly taken by New York’s S&M scene in the late 70s, Mapplethorpe began shooting sexuality in a raw form, with the purpose of communicating his own personal involvement in the underground sadomasochistic culture. Mirroring his own lifestyle allowed Mapplethorpe to flaunt this world in a way that was removed of reluctance or camouflage. It was natural, unfiltered and most importantly, honest. The 80s brought about a harmonious array of male and female nudes and blossoming still life imagery, particularly in black and white medium - although color is alive in some of Mapplethorpe's work. There’s something about black and white photography that is terribly striking — a passionate depiction of the object(s) being captured — unadulterated merely by the candor and legitimacy of Mapplethorpe, not just as an artist, but as a human being. Even after being diagnosed with the AIDS virus in 1986, Mapplethorpe continued with his work. In 1988 he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art and to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV related infection. Timely, Mapplethorpe’s first major American museum retrospective occurred in 1988 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, just one year before his death. Cemented in history, and frozen in time as one of the most meaningful artists of the twentieth century, Robert Mapplethorpe is symbolic of the power of expression, sex as an unprejudiced topic of portrayal and someone with a fervent attention to detail. The 250 works featured in “Focus: Perfection - Robert Mapplethorpe” cover the Robert Mapplethorpe’s entire career, from his initial formation in the late 1960s, to his unfortunate death in 1989. (September 10, 2016 - January 22, 2017 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

Quote references:

Robert Mapplethorpe in an interview with Barbara McKenzie, in 1985

Robert Mapplethorpe to ARTnews in late 1988.


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