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Patti Smith's CAC Show: A Mapplethorpe Tribute

By Steven Rosen · April 17th, 2013 · The Big Picture
ac_bigpic_-pattismith2Patti Smith - Provided

In advance of last year’s FotoFocus festival, probably the largest photography-related event in Cincinnati’s history, I asked James Crump — the festival’s co-chair and then chief curator/curator-at-large at Cincinnati Art Museum — if there wasn’t an unspoken spirit hovering over the proceedings: Robert Mapplethorpe.

After all, Cincinnati was the city that in 1990 tried to shut down the Contemporary Arts Center’s Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Moment and jail its director because of some homoerotic images among the photographer’s varied body of work. (It was really Hamilton County’s conservative political establishment, led by then-sheriff Simon Leis, which shepherded the effort.)

True, a jury quickly found the show not obscene — a resounding blow to local censorship — but there remains an undercurrent of embarrassment at the attempt, especially as the reputation of Mapplethorpe, the New York photographer who died from AIDS in 1989, has grown. 

“If some meaningful outcome redresses the historical injustice that occurred in Cincinnati, I’d be all for it,” Crump says. “But we didn’t design [FotoFocus] as such.” 

Before coming to the CAM, Crump, who resigned from his position in February, directed Black White + Gray, an excellent documentary about Mapplethorpe’s relationship with his patron/partner Sam Wagstaff and with the musician Patti Smith, his longtime friend. He also had the museum buy Mapplethorpe works and wanted to acquire more. And Crump’s last photography show at the museum, which opened in February and continues through May 5, is a retrospective of James Welling’s work that the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is co-sponsoring. 

But that “redressing” really takes a giant leap forward on May 18 when the CAC opens Patti Smith’s exhibit The Coral Sea. It will be a tribute to Mapplethorpe, informed by but not exclusively about Smith’s relationship with him.

Her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, recounted their friendship as young people in New York’s art world and is being made into a film.

Recently, on a phone call from London — where she is studying for a master’s degree in global art — CAC Adjunct Curator Justine Ludwig (the exhibit’s curator) revealed some details of the planned show. The exhibit shares a name with The Coral Sea, a book of poetry Smith wrote in the wake of Mapplethorpe’s death that she later recorded with guitarist Kevin Shields. (She will be performing The Coral Sea on May 18 at Memorial Hall.)

Since those first details appeared on a CityBeat blog two weeks ago, Ludwig has sent some updated information and quotes via email. They have been combined with the older material in this condensed summary. 

“It’s very much a rumination on the life and death of Robert Mapplethorpe,” Ludwig says of the exhibit. “So there are a lot of objects in the exhibition that very much relate to his life.”  

It will include his slippers that have his initials on them, three photographs by him — including one with text — and a necklace with a medal on it. “These objects are components of ideas that present a larger narrative of life, death and transition,” Ludwig says. 

“It comprises of installations, photography and writing,” she adds. “We’ll be showing part of the original manuscript of The Coral Sea that Patti wrote about Robert. We’re going to see a connection between the two artists throughout the exhibition. She has this very beautiful handwriting that is an art form within itself.”

There are also photographs Smith took. “Patti did not take photographs of Robert’s face; she took photographs of his hands,” Ludwig says. “We’ll have a few (of those), and then a few photographic works that are more in reference to Robert and his aesthetic sensibilities but not of him.”

And there is an installation within the show called “Infirmary,” which includes steel beds, photographs and drawings. “The beds are references to the beds Robert spent the end of his life in and that many people who died from AIDS passed away in,” Ludwig says.

For last year’s FotoFocus, Crump brought to CAM from L.A.’s  Getty Museum the exhibit Herb Ritts: LA Style, which examined a photographer who was one of Mapplethorpe’s contemporaries in exploring the nude figure in new ways. 

On opening weekend, Paul Martineau — the Getty curator for the Ritts exhibit, came to town. He’s also at work on a major Mapplethorpe exhibit to be presented jointly by the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2016. 

Martineau told me it might travel. Cincinnati would be a perfect venue for it. Is it too early to start a campaign to bring that Mapplethorpe exhibit to Cincinnati?  

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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