Art Scrit, 2016

Several exhibitions featuring the work of photographers Catherine Opie and Robert Mapplethorpe concurrently on view in Los Angeles provide an exceptional opportunity for reappraising how fame, fortune, personal history, branding, canonization and the recuperation of history get woven into cultural practices on an individual and institutional scale. The backstory of who appears within the frame and what those frameworks might entail, is as much a story about the indexical nature of photography (namely, how photos point to things beyond the frame), as it is a historical record of the subjective and performative aspects of the subcultures that these two artists occupied. 

With such an unparalleled amount of wall space devoted to Opie and Mapplethorpe, we get to see how they have grappled with representations of gender, race, class, community, personal identity, and, beauty.  Although, at first blush, their work might appear to be similar in terms of transgressive content, a more nuanced examination shows how audiences might leverage meaning in the work by reading it in a postmodern sense.

Some see Opie as heir apparent torch-bearer to Mapplethorpe’s legacy, since early in her career Opie produced S/M bondage imagery in response to Mapplethorpe’s. Others identify her as either grand dame of the medium because of the sheer breadth of her work, or part of the establishment since she sits on the boards of the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), where she also exhibits her work.

Now that the gauzy filter of what has become know at the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s has begun to dissipate, we can better measure each artist’s cultural contribution and their aspirations. Indeed, the planets of stardom, identity politics, historical spin, art history, academic imprimatur and acquisition practices have aligned in the following exhibitions. 

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, presented in tandem by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Getty Museum to commemorate the recent acquisition of the Mapplethorpe archives by both institutions, traces the historical arc of what erupted as the “culture wars” stemming from a traveling exhibition of The Perfect Moment, a show Mapplethorpe personally organized just before his death. The difference in show titles, from “moment” to “medium,” highlights how archives provide historical context and it acts as a statement about material and monetary features of artifacts (March 15 – July 31, 2016). 

The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs, also at The Getty, offers a significant sampling of the vast personal collection that the museum acquired in 1984 from Sam Wagstaff, a wealthy curator, collector, and partner, patron and promoter of Mapplethorpe. This collection allows us to consider these men’s relationship, since the Mapplethorpe archive will now be housed within the Wagstaff Collection (March 15 – July 31, 2016). 

Catherine Opie: O, on display at LACMA, is a seven-image portfolio featuring ephemeral sadomasochistic imagery that Opie produced in response to Mapplethorpe’s more blatantly sexualized 1978 X Portfolio (February 13 – September 5, 2016). 

Catherine Opie: Portraits at Hammer Projects offers large-scale theatrically lit subjects posed against black backdrops as a series of painterly photographic images of her circle of friends and professional colleagues (January 30 – May 22, 2016). 

9At the MOCA Pacific Design Center is Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road, another documentary portrait project produced in a more conceptual vein, since it is modeled after William Eggleston’s documentation of Elvis Presley’s Memphis estate, Graceland, is Opie’s six-month rendering of the shifts that took place in Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel-Air home before and shortly after the actress’s death (January 23 – May 8, 2016). 

Although the chief curators at MOCA and Hammer conceived of these shows separately, they decided to present them in tandem, according to a Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016 article describing these and other upcoming projects by the artist as an ongoing “Catherine Opie Moment in Los Angeles.”

1There are also a few images in The Getty exhibition that steer our attention toward the long shadow of the persona cast by Andy Warhol, a contemporary in the 1970s and contender of Mapplethorpe’s celebrity niche. For instance, there’s a money shot, literally, of an illuminated dollar bill of which we can see both sides of the currency held up to the light, presented near a strained photo of Warhol. Both images are by Mapplethorpe with wall texts alluding to the fact that these artists were wary and mistrustful of each other. While many of Mapplethorpe’s strategies in achieving fame look like pages torn from Warhol’s playbook (with the specter of AIDS thrown into the mix), Opie’s career and interests have a different breadth and trajectory.

Niche Aesthetics 

You know its ART, when the check clears — Andy Warhol 

HBO’s website promoting Look at the Pictures (a phrase referring to Senator Jesse Helms’ entreaty to Congress to halt National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] funding of institutions and exhibitions featuring pornographic fare), a documentary released to coincide with the LACMA and Getty exhibitions, makes the overly general claim that Mapplethorpe “turned contemporary photography into a fine art.” Actually, since the inception of the medium and at different periods throughout its history, contemporary photography had been considered a fine art from time to time, especially in allegorical, Impressionist, and painterly infusions, as explained in “The History of Photography as a Fine Art,” a course offered by New York University in the late 1970s while Mapplethorpe was developing his brand. 

What HBO is probably right about, however, is that the photography contemporary to the 1970s hadn’t been fully commodified as high art which hung in large formats on museum walls. Indeed, collectors like Wagstaff were very actively hunting down all of the discreet vintage prints that may have existed in the world at the time, thus contributing to the market process. Vintage photographs are those printed near the time the negative was made, and are assumed to reflect the photographer’s technical sense, aesthetic values and visual literacy. Establishing who might constitute the pillars of the medium — who best deployed new techniques, methods, and aesthetic considerations first within the history of the medium, and, what the evolving technical thresholds of quality might be — led to highly speculative practices that fueled the booming auction houses funneling these newly valued precious objects into private collections and museums. 

The market developed so fast that situations arose, for instance, where the New York City Public Library suddenly realized it held untold wealth in collections of photographs attached as illustrations and artwork to the pages of lots of very old books. Conceptual artists using the medium during this period also began to realize that there were more lucrative career options in identifying themselves as artists with a capital “A,” rather than photographers (especially those staging performance art, where the resulting record and ephemera could later be commodified as marketable objects). In terms of stewardship, however, it was Wagstaff’s strong aesthetic and stringent curatorial sense during this period that has left us with a much deeper historical well, because, had it not been for his almost unlimited budget and the brinksmanship to pull it off, many examples of the material aspects of the medium would have been widely dispersed in a lot more private collections, and fundamentally unavailable to the public. 

I always notice flowers — Andy Warhol 

In the audio tour at The Getty we learn that Mapplethorpe despised flowers but thought they might sell well and help him establish himself. HBO’s website also notes that, “He often mounted two shows simultaneously: An Uptown exhibition might include society portraits and delicate flower still-lives, while his sexually explicit photographs were on view downtown.” In terms of the duplicity of his uptown/downtown divide, the exhibitions in L.A. this go round leave the impression that the print quality and content (celebrities and flowers) looks better at The Getty. It’s probably the dim protective lighting there. Whereas the sex works seem much stronger at LACMA.  It is, after all, a public institution, unlike The Getty. Although The Getty provided a snug alcove for viewing more blatant images, museum guards there intervened to alert family groups they might actually wish to abstain. LACMA also apropos, presented drawings and other media produced by Mapplethorpe during his Pratt Institute early art school days. 

10While Mapplethorpe’s black and white compositions involve sex and fashion, Opie’s explorations into the realm of beauty include nearly human-scale photographic portraits infused with Renaissance lighting, and glowing soft focus images of landscapes and jewels. Opie’s use of an infinite black background suspends her subjects in an allegorical pause, while Mapplethorpe’s use of black seems to bring an underworld into the foreground. Opie’s Bridal Falls, an abstract landscape at the Hammer, and the fuzzy sparking image of Liz’s jewelry at the Pacific Design Center similarly function as contemplative images, in that you wonder of what you’re looking at, then look again to reconcile the image with its title. Soft focus stands for passage in Mapplethorpe’s most direct self-portrait in which he seems to stare down his imminent death (and the viewer) while gripping a skull-headed cane in a seated pose of ephemeral fury. Both Opie and Mapplethorpe nimbly convert what is fleeting into something more lasting. 

The Recuperation of History 

History books are being re-written all the time — Andy Warhol 

Although the thorniest of The Getty’s highly publicized problems have been its acquisition practices related to questionable provenance, it has also provoked its share of troubles around its hegemonic practices, namely, how it has leveraged its financial might as a private institution to define knowledge, such as who falls within or outside of art history’s evolving canon. Founded with the mission of improving the quality and status of arts education in the nation’s public schools – as a means of transmitting cultural values through an aesthetics approach known as discipline-based art education (DBAE) – the Getty’s Education Institute from the onset encountered problems from teachers and critics, since its description of art history didn’t accommodate art produced outside or critical of the dominant culture. The institution’s seed money for national arts programs was, therefore, seen to focus instead on biased views about what constituted aesthetics, with evaluations supporting existing material valuations of art objects. As a pedagogical vehicle, the Institute’s approach consistently stumbled over Multiculturalism and Feminism, as well as formal and practical concerns raised by Postmodernism’s critique of Modernity. With these and its other problems, the Getty Education Institute was closed in 2003 by the CEO, who later resigned while under investigation by the California Attorney General for financial improprieties. 

Indeed, the problems raised by DBAE were mirrored in the cultural debates raging from the 1980s onward, particularly those pertaining to public funding by the NEA. The difference being that The Getty Endowment is currently estimated at $6.7 billion, making it the world’s wealthiest art institution, while the NEA has awarded $5 billion over a prolonged fifty-year period. 

Two exhibitions from the late 1980s to the early 1990s clearly frame what was at stake. To avoid losing the funding it received from the NEA, and to avoid controversy for showing the wrong work at the wrong place at a bad time, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. cancelled the traveling Mapplethorpe show, an event the artist would have enjoyed had he not died of AIDS a few months earlier. A few years later Hilton Cramer, art critic and champion of tradition in the culture wars, in the last hurrah of his own career, faulted the 1993 Whitney Biennial for what he saw as a preoccupation with gender and ethnic identity and its visceral distaste for anything visually pleasurable. Although largely reviled by many critics then, it has come to be considered such a pivotal show that it was remounted with a focus on New York artists twenty years later by the New Museum. However, in the short span of time between the Perfect Moment being cancelled in 1989 and the 1993 Whitney Biennial, issues like race and class had already become contentious issues in Mapplethorpe’s work. 

3Opie, meanwhile, was producing some of her strongest work during this period, such as Self Portrait/Pervert, 1994, of which she still has scars from the word that was carved into the bare chest of her heavily pierced and hooded seated figure, and Self-Portrait/Cutting, 1993, where she bleeds from a stick figure scene of two mommies, a house and clouds cut into her back. The imagery contains many of the hyphenated identity markers of the culture wars still up for grabs, such as working class-S/M bondage-lesbian-mother-body artist-photographer.  Although Opie has acknowledged that the sheer power of this body of work has been hard to shake free from in terms of how she has been identified since (she still gets classified primarily as the transgressive dyke after twenty years of producing other significant bodies of work). The painterly Hans Holbein compositional reference that she described in her work then, however, resurfaces in her recent work, stronger than ever. 

Inhabiting the Frame 

I can only understand really amateur performers or really bad performers, because whatever they do never really comes off, so therefore it can’t be phony. But I can never understand really good, professional performers. Every professional performer I’ve ever seen always does exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment in every show they do. They know when the audience is going to laugh and when it’s going to get really interested. What I like are things that are different every time. That’s why I like amateur performers and bad performers — you can never tell what they’ll do next. — Andy Warhol 

5In his March 31, 2016 New York Times review of the L.A. Mapplethorpe shows, Holland Cotter comments, “A quarter-century later, canonization is complete … An artist once reviled as a pariah and embraced as a martyr has been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream. He’s now a classic, with auction prices to match. The question is, how does the work, cleaned of the grit of controversy, hold up?” Cotter incisively homes in on underlying issues of Mapplethorpe’s artistic license pertaining to the essentialism found in his Black Book of 1986, a collection of black males, epitomized in the image of a phallus spilling from the zipper of a faceless “Man in a Polyester Suit,” since it poses the raw equation of race = sex. Although several of these black men were his lovers, it’s Mapplethorpe’s privileged directorial treatment of them as idealized and fetishized objects, at the time they were made and especially now, that makes them so problematic, given the social landscape of a post-Rodney King of Los Angeles, and a post-Obama America of today. 

Final print files

One person who appears in Opie’s current Hammer show of portraits is artist, Glenn Ligon, whose contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial won him renown, in his Notes on the Margins of the Black Book, 1991-93. In this piece Ligon disassembled Maplethorpe’s original book, interspersed the 91 images of naked black men with quotes gathered from writers and theorists, then remounted the combined work as an attempt to address, as a gay black man, how disturbing he originally found the imagery to be. A statement by James Baldwin included, for example, pointed out that, “color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.” 

6In retrospect, it is specifically the imagery in which Mapplethorpe directs his own actions and inhabits the frame, as in the self-portrait of him glaring at the viewer over his shoulder with a bullwhip up his ass, that the combination of representation, form, content and context still appears quite radical. The fundamental impact and social value of Opie’s ongoing projects is likewise located in her nuanced examinations of identity and self. However, in a more ongoing and detailed way, Opie’s work attempts to show how we work out our sense of belonging within our chosen communities.

The idea is not to live forever, it is to create something that will — Andy Warhol 

Following the sale of his photo collection to the Getty, Wagstaff bought Mapplethorpe a New York City loft spacious enough to accommodate his photo studio, with a living area where he could accumulate a modest but glamorous personal art collection. Upon his death Wagstaff’s estate passed to Mapplethorpe. Opie, on the other hand, has lived and worked most of her professional life in West Adams, Central Los Angeles, south of Route 10, where she built her studio in her backyard. Perhaps as a reflection of class aspirations, she modeled the project of documenting her neighborhood on the work produced by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal effort created by the US government in 1937 to combat American rural poverty during the Great Depression. 

If Warhol’s focus was celebrity, morbidity and consumerism, then Mapplethorpe’s concerns included soft and hard-core sexuality, sponsorship and activism. Warhol understood that purchasing pictures of celebrities might make the buyer feel famous too, albeit briefly. His images of car crashes, electric chairs, and, Marilyn bristle with mourning, while his paintings of cold hard cash have ultimately become equivalent to stocks and bonds. Mapplethorpe’s more sexualized imagery includes the reproductive components of flowers, the flash of the famous, and tactile qualities of leather and skin. Wagstaff provided him access to collectors and offered inroads into the art world circuit. With the then death sentence of AIDS at the end of his life, his pleasure seeking imagery was retooled by many into a public forum for AIDS awareness. 

Since Mapplethorpe has now become a canonized classic, Opie’s status as the grand dame of photography is worth evaluating. She attended the San Francisco Art Institute for her undergraduate, then Cal Arts in Southern California for her graduate arts degree, got a job as a lab technician at UC Irvine, and has been a professor of photography at UCLA since 2001. She is a member of the board of directors at MOCA, and has recently been elected to the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation. The relationships she has forged during this period constitute what she calls her “royal family,” which includes visual artists, fashion designers, writers, family and friends, who appear in her portrait show at the Hammer, including Glenn Ligon, John Baldesarri, Ron Athey, Kara Walker, Miranda July, Matthew Barney, etc. Whereas Mapplethorpe was determined to make it, which for him meant being recognized as an artist and becoming famous, the term used to describe Opie these days is “pre-eminent.” 

Mapplethorpe’s full potential was cut short by the AIDS pandemic, while Opie’s has evolved over a longer period encompassing several bodies of work documenting various communities including lesbians, surfers, football players, the S/M crowd, and those attending Obama’s inaugural address. Her landscapes have included L.A. strip malls, elegant vacant freeway ramps, a series of ice fishing huts, and most recently dream-like abstracts of the symbolic aspects of our national parks, while revisiting the practice of portraiture. Indeed, the cumulative merits of her work have been steadily culled through her investigation of the history of her chosen medium. 

Unitary versus Substantive Value 

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it. — Andy Warhol 

Warhol knew how to turn one form of consumption into another, by spinning democratized goods into box office gold. Through his formal mimicry of, say, Brillo boxes, he churned his Factory production into high end items by deploying the Duchampian gambit of shuttling commonly found objects into fine art contexts. 

It would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a great big ring on Liz Taylor’s finger. — Andy Warhol 

He was also, however, well aware of the difference between economic and substantive value. While noting how a Coke equals a unitary, object-like monetary value which everyone might be able to afford, he also understood that Liz could afford to consume many more units and very different kinds of goods than a bum on the street. To miss this point would be like driving down a L.A. freeway while drinking a Coke and assuming that someone hurtling along in an adjacent lane, who is of a different age, gender, race, class, consciousness, etc., must be just like me because of the formal similarity that they also happen to be drinking a Coke while driving. But alas, there’s a vast difference between form and context, as well as price and prestige in how we actually value things.

Self-Portrait/PervertAn example of substantive value is something that can’t be directly converted into a monetary amount because it can only be exchanged or bartered within very personal or ritualized arenas. Opie’s documentary investigations into the intersubjective constitution of community fits this definition. The lasting scar, as a residue of commitment, from her Self Portrait/Pervert of 1994 is another example – versus, say, the unitary value of fifteen minutes of Warholian fame.

Some company recently was interested in buying my “aura.” They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, “We want your aura.” I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So then I thought that if somebody was willing to pay that much for my it, I should try to figure out what it was. — Andy Warhol 

The Getty purchased Sam Wagstaff’s photo collection for $5 million in 1984. Taking inflation into consideration, that figure would amount to $11.5 million today. When adjusted in terms of connoisseurship and branding, however, we enter the realm where economic and substantive values begin to morph, since that calculus involves considerations of name recognition, notoriety, and provenance (outsourced in this case to Wagstaff the curator, thus presumably performed more thoroughly). 

12Wall texts in the Wagstaff show note, for instance, how steeply the value has escalated for a 1935 color photograph of a butterfly by Man Ray, were it to sell at auction today.Art Daily’s April 2016 estimate of the Mapplethorpe archive — which includes more than 2,000 works by the artist, virtually every silver gelatin photograph he ever editioned, and thousands of other objects — conservatively values it well in excess of $30 million. The real subtext and tear jerker here is that these two bodies of work, which are reflections of these men’s relationship, are together again after all these years. Art Daily also posits that the archive “has the potential to act as a conduit to larger research topics about art in the 1980s, the confluence of cultural and political debate, and its interpretation through subsequent generations of artists such as Catherine Opie … and others.” 

11Of her Pacific Design Center show we learn that Opie was drawn to the project of portraying Taylor via her personal effects (a headboard-worn wall in her bedroom, highly organized closets filled with gowns, boots and furs, admixtures of kitsch with clusters of gems, etc.), primarily because of the actress’s ethical interests, such as her history of AIDS activism. What ultimately results is less about Liz’s celebrity than a process of honoring and witnessing the quotidian aspects of this particular person’s lived humanity. Of her suite of images at LACMA, Opie again proposes that although her S/M series was produced in reference to Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, her soft focus depictions are less about the rebelliousness of objectively cataloging sexual acts than revealing vaguer subjective bounds of trust and intimacy. In the classically posed portraits on view at Hammer her friends and colleagues appear in revelatory postures of stillness and poise, thus returning full circle to the subjective content of some of her earliest work. By focusing on the subtleties of community, humanity and intimacy, rather than flash of fame, Opie’s work offers deeply intertwined threads of hope and yearning during these, and, war torn years.