After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the Contemporary Arts Center has been instructional for showing us what the public wants in terms of Mapplethorpe remembrance.
The audience, it turned out, wanted some history of what happened in Cincinnati in 1990, when the CAC’s presentation of The Perfect Moment, the Mapplethorpe retrospective, caused the conservative political establishment to prosecute it on obscenity charges. (The CAC won.) And people wanted to see some of the photographs involved in the “culture wars” battles of the period, because some of those battles still seem alive.
Ultimately the audience got that, thanks especially to Steven Matijcio, the CAC’s curator, and guest curator William Messer. The latter organizes photography exhibits at Iris BookCafé and was curating shows at the Images photography gallery back in 1990. He also is a photographer.
Originally, the main thrust of After the Moment appeared to be the presentation of new and current work. To that end, six regional guest curators each chose five local artists who would address the making of art in today’s “post-Mapplethorpe” environment.
Matijcio explained that purpose to me shortly before the show opened on Nov. 6. “We really wanted to see how that (Mapplethorpe) legacy is being translated,” he said.
“That was the driving force behind commissioning all-new work — asking artists of this region to reflect on this post-Mapplethorpe landscape through the lens of their art-making.”
As it turned out, the show’s power — and the source of its popularity — was in the old material. And fortunately, Matijcio had planned for that all along. After seeing the interest that archival material had held in an earlier exhibit, 2014-2015’s Memory Palace, he had decided to use archives related to The Perfect Moment in this one.
And that “history section” — documents, correspondence, newspaper clips, etc. –— was transfixing. On my visits, people were always gathered around and studying this material. It was new to them. “There still is an interest, still a fascination,” Matijcio said last week. “It’s very much unresolved.”
Messer was originally selected as one of the show’s curators. But, he said, “I persuaded Steven of the need for some national/international participation.”
Messer wanted to present photographers whose work, especially in Cincinnati, was affected by the censorious “culture wars.” He convinced Matijcio to approve his request.
Subsequently, Matijcio decided to also show some actual Mapplethorpe photographs. After the Moment grew to feature 11 loaned prints, most of which were in The Perfect Moment. Three, including the portrait of a naked boy that prosecutors had once cited as obscene, were on long-term loan from the Mapplethorpe Foundation, but had only been shown in the CAC’s private areas. These gave the show enormous cred.
Messer selected four pieces by national/international photographers: Joel-Peter Witkin’s 1988 “Leda,” Arno Minkkinen’s never-shown 1988 Mapplethorpe homage “The Glass Penis,” Rosalind Fox Solomon’s 1981 “Catalin Valentin’s Lamb” and Sally Mann’s 1987 “The Wet Bed.”
Solomon’s black-and-white photograph of a Peruvian woman nursing a lamb was originally shown at Images in a 1990 Solomon retrospective. Messer has said that “Catalin Valentin’s Lamb” was controversial here.
The most symbolically meaningful of Messer’s photographs in After the Moment was Mann’s “The Wet Bed.” She is a Virginia-based photographer best known for her Immediate Family project — tender, intimate and sometimes controversial black-and-white portraits of her three young children.
In 1990, Messer was curating an Images show that featured work by Mann. Nervous about Cincinnati’s prosecution of the CAC, she pulled two photos from the show, including “The Wet Bed.” It showed her young daughter, naked in a bed with a stained sheet.
At the time, late Enquirer columnist Camilla Warrick wrote about how fear of Cincinnati had caused a lost opportunity to see a significant work of art.
“Say what you will about the Mapplethorpe acquittal, the process still stole something from each of us,” she said.
Thanks to Messer, After the Moment finally returned one thing stolen from us in 1990 — Mann’s photograph.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]