hen Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction prepared to show its newly acquired set of 30 Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, there was some trepidation.
After all, many of the black-and-white photos in Robert Mapplethorpe: Photos from the Kinsey Institute Collection (on display at IU’s Grunwald Gallery of Art in the School of Fine Arts through Nov. 22) are a frank exploration into sexual practices in America. There are photographs that chronicle New York’s underground male sadomasochism, bondage and discipline scene of the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s. Also, there are explicit and erotic depictions of male and female genitalia.
Some of these Mapplethorpe photos were in The Perfect Moment, the traveling retrospective that freaked-out Hamilton County elected officials tried to shut down in 1990, when it opened at Contemporary Arts Center. They also tried to put the museum director in jail. The CAC beat the charges, but there’s been no return museum show of those photos since then, even as the 25th anniversary approaches.
IU is in Bloomington, Ind. — just a little more than 100 miles from here.
“We did wonder about the reception because we are so close to Cincinnati and those who were alive then certainly remember very well the fact that the gallery director was arrested,” says Catherine Johnson-Roehr, the Kinsey Institute’s curator of art, artifacts and photographs. “There was some concern if it could create a fuss in 2014. At this point, we haven’t heard of any complaints.”
S&M, at least when it involves consenting-adult heterosexual activity, is part of everyday culture nowadays — witness Fifty Shades of Grey. But that isn’t to say Mapplethorpe’s most confrontational work has lost its power to shock and even repel. In this show, 1978’s “Richard” looks close-up at a bloody, unrecognizable piece of male anatomy that has apparently been pierced by a nail. And 1977’s “Jim, Sausalito” shows a man in a grimy pit, wearing a “gimp” mask with zipped-shut eye slots and a shut-tight mouth-opening flap. “Clothes-pinned Mouth” speaks — or can’t speak — for itself.
That kind of work doesn’t dominate the show. Other images of men and women, those sexual and those not, confirm Mapplethorpe’s command of dramatic composition, eye for telling detail and magic with the use of light and darkness.
There are photos still imperiously masterful after all these years. “Frank Diaz,” from 1980, shows a muscular man, his bare torso seen from behind, raising antlers above his head. Whatever he is facing, be it a break in the wall, the outlines of closed window shades or a pole, creates the illusion of running downward through his head and splitting him in two, yin and yang, and then rippling like electrical current into his spine. And 1981’s “Snakeman” is iconic; 1981’s study of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon presents her like classical sculpture.
Mapplethorpe, who died at age 42 in 1989 from AIDS-related complications, had become famous in his lifetime for his portraiture, nudes and ethereal photographs of flowers. His work chronicling this particular scene was known when he was alive, but it has achieved landmark status — although not widespread visibility — since his death.
The Kinsey Institute has been at IU since 1947 and its collection of material about sexual practices and customs includes fine art.
“I started working with the collection in 2000 and the one name that really stood out that people asked me about was Robert Mapplethorpe — people asked if we had any work,” Johnson-Roehr explains. “We had some books, but we didn’t have any photographs. [They] are too high-priced for us to ever consider purchasing even one.”
In 2011, after a year of negotiation, the Institute received the work as a gift from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
“We don’t know of any other collection of this size available for study in the Midwest,” Johnson-Roehr says.
There was a requirement with the gift that a show be held. Having the Institute as the sponsor provides an empathetic setting for Mapplethorpe.
The period that he made his most challenging work, according to Johnson-Roehr, was one of celebration, of pushing the limits of what’s possible because gay liberation was in the air — especially in New York and especially after the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
“By the time you get to the later 1970s, especially before AIDs comes along, you have this amazing flowering of gay culture and liberation that’s maybe a little crazy with all that freedom — especially in larger cities like New York,” she says. “And I think the work really speaks to that.”
There’s an interesting artifact in the exhibit that supports the interpretation of this work as celebratory. It’s the now-defunct magazine Drummer, first published in the 1970s for a primarily gay audience, and which originally showed some of these photos. On the front cover is the slogan, “America’s Mag for the Macho Male.”
What is “macho” if not celebrating ever more extreme tests of pain endurance? Don’t we celebrate that in our entertainment and sports, especially violent horror movies and concussion-inducing football?
When I visited the show on a recent Saturday afternoon, it was not only well attended — it was busier than the nearby IU Art Museum, where I went afterward — but also remarkably quietly attended. It was no place to crack a joke. There is a companion show, Beyond Mapplethorpe: Selections from the Kinsey Institute Collection, in an adjacent gallery that features less artfully erotic, non-violent photographs of male nudes.
Might this exhibition come here?
“We were wondering with today’s social climate how the show might be perceived,” Johnson-Roehr says. “We would like to take it out of this venue to other places. It’d be interesting to see if you could have this show in Cincinnati in 2015. We’d love to do that. It’d be interesting to see if anyone was perturbed by it.” ©
OBERT MAPPLETHORPE: PHOTOS FROM THE KINSEY INSTITUTE COLLECTION is on display at Indiana University’s Grunwald Gallery of Art through Nov. 22. For more information, visit indiana.edu/~grunwald.