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America’s Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe
50 Americans
Reviewer #1
Self Portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe. Source: skny.com
Robert Mapplethorpe, "Self Portrait" 1982

Robert Mapplethorpe is without doubt one of the most significant artists of the late 20th century in America. Serious, talented, troubled, an agent provocateur, he is one of the most commanding photographers of our time. The Sean Kelly gallery is the American dealer for Mapplethorpe’s estate, so the title “50 Americans” promised to be an in-depth look at one of the lesser-known areas of his work. Instead this show turns out to be the silliest and most trivial presentation of a serious artist’s work seen in a long time.

The 50 Americans unfortunately are not the subjects of the photographs, but rather the curators of the show. The gallery, through a rather cloudy mechanism, selected a person from each of the 50 American states to peruse an on-line gallery of images and select their favorite. (Or their almost favorite, if their favorite had already been chosen by another, presumably better connected, state.) The exhibition then presents each image with a card that has the participant’s photograph, first name (no last names please!), age, business or occupation and “race”, along with a paragraph or two outlining the reasons that person chose that particular image. The results are thus a ‘people’s Mapplethorpe’, a photographer who reflects all Americans, and, as the press release reminds us, “ (an) America that reminds us of what a uniquely diverse country the United States is, with room for countless differing opinions and tastes.”

So the people have spoken and what do they say? Flowers and Lisa Lyons! Yes, 9 out of 50 chose pictures of flowers or fruit, and seven people out of 50 preferred the buxom body-builder over all others. And who knows how many of the others participants would have chosen Lisa if they could (how many pictures of Lisa Lyons are there?) As ‘Susan’, a 57 year old ‘Native American Crow’ of Pryor, Montana said, “When I first saw this image...I was struck by the richness of color.” and as ‘Eugene’ a 49 year old ‘Black’ from West Virginia said, “To me this image expresses the sense of a woman’s touch...”

To be fair to the participants, most of the comments were intelligent and straight forward, although it was surprising how many professed not to have heard of Mapplethorpe.

Cock and Gun by Robert Mapplethorpe. Source: skny.com
Robert Mapplethorpe, "Cock and Gun" 1982

Still, this is about as non-transgressive a Mapplethorpe show as you will ever see. There is one ‘naughty’ picture “Cock and Gun” from 1982, but as ‘Joshua’ a 32 year old ‘Caucasian’ from Fargo North Dakota said, “I was interested in this photograph because of the time period that it was created.” I don’t know if that was Mapplethorpe’s intent.

There are a reasonable number of Mapplethorpe classics, including his self-portrait with skull, and quite a number of his black men’s torsos. But the inane precept of the show keeps getting in the way. So unless you have a pressing need to see some of his gorgeous prints in the flesh —right now— I’m sure there will be many other opportunities in the future, under less jejune conditions.

Robert Mapplethorpe
50 Americans


Sean Kelly Gallery
528 W 29th St.
Chelsea         Map

212 239 1181
skny.com

Friday, May 6 to
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11 to 6; Sat, 10 to 6
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
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Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery