LOS ANGELES - The elemental pleasure of artistry in black-and-white is all over the place these days, prominently in the Guggenheim Museum’s famous spiral, where Picasso Black and White is currently holding court. But on the West Coast, that yin-and-yang combination comes across very differently indeed in two exhibitions of the work of perhaps the best photographer of the late 20th century, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989).



Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, negative 1980; print 1990. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation.

It’s an unusual two-fer kind of event, a project of both the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and his work remains up until March 24 at both places. The L.A. institutions teamed up to make a rare joint acquisition, to the tune of $38 million, from the New York–based Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Thousands of works and thousands more archival items were included, and the idea is that the museums will present the definitive Mapplethorpe shows in the last few years.

But what’s on view now is actually the perfect bite-size appetizer for anyone who wants to look past the controversies that, for a while, were inextricably linked to Mapplethorpe’s name. After all, it was only 22 years ago that a museum director was actually charged with showing pornography and tried by a jury (and thankfully acquitted) after showing some of Mapplethorpe’s S-and-M pictures.


Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas, negative 1987; print 1994. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust.

These photographs are formally stunning, especially now that the shock value of the explicit ones has worn off a bit. We know what’s coming, and hence can get right to the nuances of these tight compositions. Mapplethorpe sometimes worked in color, but most of his images – and generally the best-remembered ones – were black-and-white.

Spanish curator Carmen Gimenez, who put together the Guggenheim show, recently pointed out to me something about Picasso that stuck in my mind: Mastering black-and-white, as the Spanish painter surely did, really entails mastering all the shades of gray in between.


Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust.

And Mapplethorpe gives us every last luminous one of them – his pictures are truly rich in tone and texture, from pearl to putty to charcoal. That’s part of why he’s stood the test of time, and why these L.A. shows are further burnishing his reputation.