Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now – Guggenheim Museum New York – July 24, 2019 to January 5, 2020

Presentation Addresses the Generative Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe through Works by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya

From July 24 through January 5, 2020, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, the second part of a yearlong exhibition exploring the legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). One of the most critically acclaimed yet controversial American artists of the late 20th century, Mapplethorpe is widely known for daring, formally rigorous imagery that deliberately transgresses social mores and for the censorship debates that transformed him into a symbol of the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the ensuing decades, artists and critics have grappled with Mapplethorpe’s legacy, raising questions about the agency of the photographic subject and interrogating his representations of homoerotic desire, the black male nude, and the female figure. He has simultaneously been celebrated for bringing visibility to underrepresented communities and critiqued for objectifying his sitters. Endeavoring to reflect these complex conversations, and to honor Mapplethorpe’s critical contribution to the art of his time, this exhibition showcases the work of six artists in the Guggenheim collection who offer expansive approaches to exploring identity through photographic portraiture: Rotimi Fani-Kayode (b. 1955, Lagos, Nigeria; d. 1989, London), Lyle Ashton Harris (b. 1965, New York), Glenn Ligon (b. 1960, New York), Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, Umlazi, South Africa), Catherine Opie (b. 1961, Sandusky, Ohio), and Paul Mpagi Sepuya (b. 1982, San Bernardino, California).

Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now is organized by Lauren Hinkson, Associate Curator, Collections, and Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, with Levi Prombaum, Curatorial Assistant, Collections.

In 1993 the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation gifted approximately two hundred photographs and unique objects to the Guggenheim Museum, creating one of the most comprehensive public repositories of his work. This gift initiated the formation of the Guggenheim’s Photography Council, an acquisitions committee dedicated to actively building and strengthening the museum’s collection of art in photography and new media. Many of these works, acquired over the past three decades, engage in critical dialogue with the themes, provocations, and formal approaches evident in Mapplethorpe’s ouevre. Thirty years after the artist’s death in 1989, Implicit Tensions demonstrates the impact of Mapplethorpe both as a catalyst of the development of the Guggenheim’s photography collection and as a touchstone for artists working in contemporary portraiture and self-representation.

Following the first part of the presentation, on view from January 25–July 10, which explored the depth of the museum’s Mapplethorpe holdings, the second part of Implicit Tensions highlights the artist’s early Polaroids; iconic, classicizing nudes; flowers; self-portraits; and images of the S&M underground scene in New York.

Working in the 1980s, Rotimi Fani-Kayode produced within a short career a body of photography exploring his hybrid, transnational identity as a gay diasporic African. Often referencing his own sense of otherness as he confronted the confluence of racism and homophobia, Fani-Kayode’s images reflect his experiences as an outsider in both Africa and the West. His portraits incorporate symbolism and iconography from his Yoruba heritage into potent celebrations of spirituality, homoeroticism, and the black male figure.

The photographs, videos, and installations of Lyle Ashton Harris probe the nuances of identity and belonging through performative self-presentation. His early Americas series (1987–88) offers multilayered ruminations on—and subversions of—ethnicity, gender, and sexual desire. Since the late 1990s, Harris has assembled personal imagery and cultural ephemera into complex collages. Born out of the artist’s experiences around the recent death of his estranged father, Untitled (DAD) (2018) , looks at ritual expressions of grief and mourning to explore the therapeutic potential of publicly processing loss.

Conceptual artist Glenn Ligon appropriates text and images, transforming them into works that critique the ways race and sexuality shape the visual field. Created in the years after Mapplethorpe’s death, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93) presents framed pages excised from a copy of The Black Book (1986), a volume of Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs of black men that has been criticized for objectifying and fetishizing its subjects. Interspersed between the photos in Ligon’s installation are quotations from philosophers, activists, curators, historians, religious evangelists, visitors to Mapplethorpe exhibitions, individuals concerned with censorship issues, and people Ligon met at a bar.

As a self-described visual activist, Zanele Muholi has been dedicated to promoting awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex communities in South Africa. Muholi’s photography foregrounds the diversity, possibility, and joy of these groups while also commemorating the stigmatization, violence, and loss endured by friends and family in the artist’s home country and globally. In the series Somnayama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness, 2014– ), Muholi incorporates everyday materials into impromptu costumes to assume an array of archetypical alter egos that counter reductive stereotypes and create powerful emblems of self-possession and beauty.

Catherine Opie’s body of work in photography explores notions of communal, sexual, and cultural identity. Her formally pristine images illuminate the conditions in which communities form and the terms by which they are defined. Along with three of Opie’s powerful self-portraits, on view in this selection are the artist’s early portraits of queer subcultures, incisive views of domestic life, and explorations of youth, aging, and identity, as well as works from her O portfolio (1999), which was created as a response to Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio (1978).

Paul Mpagi Sepuya reformulates the conventions and decorum of studio portraiture with images that depict his body, as well as those of his friends and lovers, in compositions celebrating queer community and desire. The artist welcomes multiple bodies, interactions, and histories into the photographic process. By treating his models as active collaborators in his works’ creation, Sepuya relinquishes absolute control of the studio setting and undoes traditional hierarchies between photographer and subject.

Image: Rotimi Fani-Kayode Adebiyi, ca. 1989 Chromogenic print, 61.4 x 60.3 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Council, 2017.34 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Courtesy Autograph ABP

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