Robert Mapplethorpe rose out of the heady times that were the 1970s and 1980s in America, and in New York in particular. They culminated in the so-called Culture Wars and the explosion of AIDS that decimated the artistic milieu.

Against that backdrop, Mapplethorpe’s photographs seek a certain distancing while at the same time diving headlong into the chaos, delicious and deadly. It swallowed him and cost him his life. In our endless search for icons, Mapplethorpe quickly took his place in that uneven pantheon, for in his case accolades were heaped when praise would have sufficed.

In a greatly anticipated and heralded exhibition, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is showing some 250 of the controversial photographer’s images, including many with a strong homoerotic component. To put it plainly, Mapplethorpe loved the male body, whole.

The title of the exhibition is taken from the artist’s famous quote:

« I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers. »

In his search for aesthetic perfection, Mapplethorpe chose to work mostly in black and white, and frame his portrait in the same square format, making them instantly recognizable as his.

He began his career with Polaroids, some of which garnered him some fame. But in the late 70s, it was the New York S&M scene that drew his attention, and camera lens. The photographs were raw and shocking, saved by their unusual artistry.

He continued with portraiture, as well as stills of flowers, and stylized compositions of male and female nudes. Reminiscent of classical sculptures, they were beautifully derivative.

Mapplethorpe was extremely prolific, leaving behind a vast body of work, managed by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. It is to the museum’s credit, that such a varied and at times difficult production is presented in an elegant and sophisticated way, cushioning somewhat the shock of some of the photographs.

The exhibition is divided into five galleries, taking the visitor on a comprehensive – which by now is the trademark of the MMFA – tour of the world of Mapplethorpe, from his early designs, through the turmoil of the counterculture, to identity and sexuality, his relationship with musician and writer Patti Smith, and finally to the sculptural body and the famous still lives of flowers. It ends with a look at the controversy around Mapplethorpe’s retrospective The Perfect Moment, played against the backdrop of conflicting ideologies and shifting social paradigms in the US.

It is a lot to take in, one would think, but despite the reams that have been written about him, Mapplethorpe’s photography is pretty straightforward and classical. The portraits are plain in their square frames and monochromatic lighting. Were it not for the famous faces that are represented, they would not hold one’s attention for long.

The most striking is a portrait of French artist Louise Bourgeois with a giant sculpted penis under her arm, and a wicked grin on her face.

The same must be said of the flowers, although the anthropomorphic Calla lily with its phallic spadix (pronounced spay-dicks by the way) is indeed beautiful to behold but the eponymous perfection the show focuses on belongs solely to the flower and mother nature.

Behind walls of tinted glass run two corridors displaying Mapplethorpe’s unabashedly homoerotic photographs. They include the infamous fisting image, which still has the power to shock even in the day of pornography at the touch of a finger. What is equally shocking is how poor the photograph is. Were it not for its content, it might have been left on the contact sheet.

The lovely stylized images of muscular young men endowed with priapic proportions soon become tiresome, like so many young men spilling from a Calvin Klein ad. Despite the artist’s clear fascination, even obsession with the nude body, there is a lack of emotional component in these ultimately cold pictures.

But there are some very good and unexpected photographs like the Man in Polyester Suit (1980) showing a headless man in an unbuttoned suit and open zipper, from which is nonchalantly dangling a giant penis.

And there are some disturbing, socially charged, images, echoing the growing tensions. One is of a dismembered penis crushed in a mousetrap, the other, Untitled, uses acrylic medium transfer on canvas to show a bold red cross beneath which one can barely decipher an image of two men kissing.

The best photographs belong to the time he spent with Patti Smith. The pictures he took of her and their life are gentle and touching. Mapplethorpe’s emotional involvement is evident in each shot and adds a much needed element to his work. 

Robert Michael Mapplethorpe was born on Monday, November 4, 1946. Raised in Floral Park, Long Island, the third of six children, he was a mischievous little boy whose carefree youth was delicately tinged with a fascination with beauty. His young eyes stored away each play of light, the sparkle of a jewel, the rich dressing of an altar, the burnish of a gold-toned saxophone or a field of blue stars. He was gracious and shy with a precise nature. He contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir.

From Just Kids by Patti Smith

Focus: Perfection Robert Mapplethorpe
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
September 10, 2016—to January 22, 2017