Deep Learning, with Robert Mapplethorpe


Allow me a moment, if you will, to use art to tell a story of our times.

And if I'm going to use art as the best guide for perceiving information in this nasty Information Age of ours, I figure I might as well start with the Robert Mapplethorpe mini-retrospective, going on through April 13 at the Gladstone Gallery in the heart of the contemporary art ghetto on Chelsea's West 24th Street.

Now, you must be asking yourself, "What on earth is this data geek gonna say?"

The show appears to be nothing more than several dozen photo portraits, still lifes and the occasional nude. There are none of the tired Olympic-Games-Closing-Ceremony-style contemporary art antics of flaming bits of aluminum, digitally enhanced virtual reality or any of the other gimmicks of visual trickery hoping to be our proverbial LED flashlights in this dark time. Yet somehow, these just-off-square, just-off-black, mostly 16 x 20 silver-gelatin prints blast a beacon of clarity into the process of processing information.

And that stark simplicity helps to maintain Mapplethorpe as the singular star still-life shooter of this age or any other. He was, simply, that good.

Mapplethorpe died 29 years ago, but all these blurry past three decades have done is confirm him to be the master of the transgressive photo pole vault, an event for which he very much still holds the world record.

All his gold medal attempts are on the wall at Gladstone. There's the shot of a shirtless Richard Gere, back when he was so hot. There's the iconic smirkless portrait of singer Patti Smith. There's the heartbreaking shot of Sean Young, the porcelain original replicant that Harrison Ford falls for in 1982's Blade Runner. There are the portraits of kids and sailors and soldiers and probably a bust of Shakespeare or Shaw. And then there are the signature nudes -- the still oh-so-perfect shots of the human body that $100 says could trigger an honest discussion about sexuality between just about anybody -- even, say, Karen and Mike Pence.

On some levels, every Christian should see this show, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. It's that kind of eye opener. 

But what's perceptive gold here is how the show's curator, Roe Ethridge, brilliantly leaves out the details of each print. There are no names or titles -- just photos. So all you're left with is the sense that you're looking at somebody important, even if you don't know who it is. And if you can stay off your dang smart phone for 40 minutes, you can live in the glory of not being exactly sure who all these ultra-famous people are. And from there, you can calibrate your own sense of memory and value of what matters. As you wander around this 2,500-square-foot gallery, Richard Gere becomes just another prince of a person, like us.

There's also a lesson for all of us struggling in the face of overwhelming amounts of information. It can be found in Mapplethorpe's resplendent self-portrait. Instead of seeing the artist as we usually have, vamping or carrying a tommy gun, he's holding court, relaxed, sitting in a chair, wearing what appears to be a smoking jacket and ... house slippers?!? This picture puts itself right up there on the self-portrait Mount Rushmore, along with Rembrandt and van Gogh. Take a look.


See what the show is trying to tell us about our time? Even in this room full of images that nobody else could have taken, we see Mapplethorpe for who he was: a seemingly boring old white guy from Queens. He grew up not far from me, in New York's dorkiest borough, where he went to local schools and made good back in the days when this town was cheap. There were no hashtag trends to bail out this street kid, no social media to be part of, and no community to support him. He just grabbed a camera, stood up and shot what he thought mattered -- even if it was a "fully functioning" man naked as the day he was born.

To me, this retrospective is a clear challenge: Go ahead, break down that wall, kick open that door, blow up that market. Mapplethorpe would have loved #Deeplearning, #NRA, and #MeToo, until he saw the mostly feeble progress of these "movements." Then he'd probably wonder if he should be part of it all.

More than anybody else, Mapplethorpe understood that destroying first and building later is the worst kind of cheap shot.