Allow me a moment, if you will, to use an art exhibit to tell a story of art without identity.
In particular, Robert Mapplethorpe’s mini-retrospective, going on through April 13 at the Gladstone Gallery in the heart of New York’s contemporary art ghetto on Chelsea's West 24th Street. The show appears to be nothing more than several dozen portraits, still lifes, and nudes.
There are none of the trappings of Post-Information Age “Big Art.” No flaming bits of aluminum, no digitally enhanced virtual reality or no Agitprop, angry gashes at this or that injustice. Mapplethorpe’s installation is nothing but walls of strictly organized, just-off-black, just off-square, 16 by 20 silver-gelatin prints that offer as clear an example of identity-less perception as I have found.
And probably where all serious art will be headed for the coming generation.
What do We Need to Know About the Art?
Mapplethorpe may have died 29 years ago. But he photographed some of the most identifiable people ever. And many of those timeless photos are here: There is the late 70’s shot of a shirtless Richard Gere, when he was sooooo effing hot. There's one those iconic Patti Smith portraits, where it feels her image was liftecd from a church fresco in Sicily somewhere. There's the heartbreaker, near-selfie of Sean Young, who played the perfect replicant in the 1982 SciFi hit Blade Runner, before the booze and show business shame broke her down.
But Mapplethorpe never husbanded his talents only for the well-known. He portraits of kids and sailors and soldiers were just as good. His still lifes of flowers and statutes somehow brought those bits of stone and cellular fiber a kind of immortality. Then there are the perfect nudes of Lydia Cheng or Lisa Lyon or Charles Bowman or Derrick Cross, that still trigger an honest discussion about eroticism and gender between just about anybody.
It made me think that Karen and Mike Pence owe themselves a trip to Gladstone.
It is The Anonymity That Matters.
But the cultural touchstone at the Gladstone show is how the curator, Roe Ethridge, brilliantly leaves out the details of who is what in each print. There are no names or titles or any sort of information at all, hung near these photos. It’s just the photos. One after another after another. It is left up to us to sense out who we are looking at, and if they’re somebody “important” at all. And if you have the courage to keep off your dang smart phone, you earn the ultimate 21st-century luxury: Living for 40 minutes with the sensation of not being sure who all these ultra-famous people exactly are.
It is that uncertainty that recalibrates your sense of memory and value and perception, and then finally of art itself.
I think you’ll find, as you wander around this 2,500-square-foot gallery not knowing if that’s Richard Gere, Patti Smith and or some kid at a bus station in those photos, you find all those people become just another prince of a person, like you.
That’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s gift from the grave: The guy who I remember calling himself the “queen from Queens” at some party I was at at some point, finally shows us that stripping the identity from his art is what makes it art.
Who knows how we all live up to that standard of invisibility and decripit identity-driven age. But damn if we all shouldn’t try.