Every new show on Robert Mapplethorpe – and often, there are many running simultaneously – presents an opportunity to view his provocative work through a different interpretative lens. With Peter Marino as curator of 'XYZ', a Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris, the statement is as much about space as subject matter. Or, as he tells Wallpaper*, ‘I’m hoping to achieve something, if I may say, that appears a little more focused than what has been shown before.’
Most notably, the internationally renowned architect has impeded entry to the main gallery with a black wall featuring a trio of images that correspond to the themes of Mapplethorpe’s well-known X, Y, and Z portfolios (X for sex, Y for floral still lifes, Z for nudes). Visitors are forced to first confront this grouping – Marino’s so-called ‘table of contents’ – before turning one corner or the other to arrive into a darkened, temple-like space. It's a seemingly sacred backdrop for images that, at their most erotic extreme, might qualify as profane. Each of the three walls features an arrangement of 18 photos relating to the themes, but not, as Marino makes clear, a selection lifted directly from the portfolios. (Several have come from the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, The Getty Museum and LACMA; Thaddaeus Ropac has represented the artist’s work since 2000).
This staging, says Marino, circumvents the feeling of 'walking into a void.' As revelatory as this sounds, given that it goes against most gallery architecture, it wasn’t his only reason. ‘I also don’t like, what I call, making value judgments. If, for a viewer, you walk directly into that wall, you are automatically saying, "Ah, that is my most important thing." And on purpose, I said, no, all three are equally important.’ Thus, the sadomasochism, sexuality charged flora and sculpted male nudity exist both independently of each other, and as a harmonised whole (one, that should be noted, is not suitable for children).
Finally, on the fourth wall (the reverse of the one installed for the show) is a single image of the photographer’s eyes, as if he has been watching everyone all along. In the outer gallery, meanwhile, is a series of 17 Polaroid images divided between explicitly sexual and intriguingly, experimentally abstract – the two sides of Mapplethorpe that Marino believes are 'never adequately explained'. In his mind, what they lack in aesthetic value, they make up for in establishing the artist’s early motivations.
If by this point, Marino comes off sounding a Mapplethorpe expert, that’s because he has been a collector for decades (he says they met briefly at Andy Warhol’s Factory but were never friends). In fact, his collection is so substantial that it will be traveling to Tokyo, followed by Osaka, for its own exhibition in 2017.
While Mapplethorpe isn’t known for obvious architectural themes – building facades, say – his style was unequivocally architectural. In fact, Marino began his personal collection with a tulip image because he was drawn to the shadow play from a mullioned window. ‘I always thought he had a very architectural eye,’ he says, adding how he arrived at the show's final edit by selecting examples in which Mapplethorpe worked both with and against ‘centrality’.
Asked what this reading of Mapplethorpe might reveal about him, Peter Marino, the architect laughs, pauses and replies, ‘I’m at a stage in life where I can afford to be brutally honest. I mean it’s liberating; it’s free; it’s great.’