I am of an age that the name Robert Mapplethorpe sets off a visceral reaction in me. I was coming of age as an artist, an activist, a husband, and a father in San Francisco in 1989 when Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment tour erupted into a controversy so heated it threatened the very existence of the National Endowment for the Arts.
I was not aware at the time of Boston’s place in that story. Not only was Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art the final stop of that tour, Boston is also where Mapplethorpe died, shortly before the exhibit arrived here. The ICA kept the exhibit open despite tremendous pressure from around the country and constant protests.
The storm around the artist and the exhibit centered on its confrontational insistence on sexuality as its subject matter, specifically gay, male sexuality. We were in the middle of the AIDS crisis, which would ultimately claim the photographer’s life. The fury on all sides seemed, in many ways, fueled on that epidemic—the fear, the grief, the gay community’s determination to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” and conservative politicians and clergy denouncing this exhibit as the work of the devil, the pandemic a sign of God’s wrath.
What I did not notice, at the time, was the equally present and challenging role of the white gaze in the work. There was no space, in the face of all the shouting about sex and sexuality, for me to reflect on the imagery and what it also had to say to us about objectification of black bodies by white observers. The first time I encountered Essex Hemphill’s critique of these photos was when I was exploring Triptych for ArtsEmerson’s 10th Season.
This project creates that space. And it invites contemplation—even in its very pacing, which is so much the opposite of the frenzied atmosphere I recall first seeing them through. Contemplation and reflection are things we were largely denied at the time of the original exhibit. Yes, the images exist in books and are still housed in collections at major museums, but mostly we’ve not had the gift of a moment, in the company of strangers, to consider the works since that raucous and fractious tour concluded in 1990 here in our city.
At ArtsEmerson, we are committed to creating opportunities to foster connection across difference, to understand our world as enlivened by these differences and held in communion through empathy. Mapplethorpe’s work, and life, triggered a splenetic reveal of our differences. Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) gives us a chance to go out and come in again, to understand the complexity and diversity of our city and our world in relation to one of its great photographers.
-David Dower Artistic Director