Reframing the Image
Triptych Focuses a Contemporary Lens on Robert Mapplethorpe's Provocative Art
by Thomas May
In this age of selfies, promiscuously disseminated Snapchat sexting, and Instagram—the omnipresent reflection of our image-saturated, disposable culture—it almost defies belief that an exhibition of photographs was once the flashpoint for the culture wars that continue to divide America.
But a mere three decades ago, a large-scale traveling retrospective of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work inspired a crusade of protest from the religious right and its congressional allies (spearheaded by Republican Senator Jesse Helms), which, in turn, was met with vehement counteractions from the other side of the spectrum. The show, titled The Perfect Moment, had initially opened to great acclaim in late 1988. Within months, however, it ignited a bitter, protracted debate over the responsibility of art and its role in society.
The aftermath of The Perfect Moment was explosive. "Ironically, it made Robert Mapplethorpe far more famous than before," remarks Bryce Dessner, composer of the hybrid theatrical work Triptych (Eyes of One on Another). A Cal Performances co-commission that promises to be a highlight of the fall season (Sep 28), Triptych reconsiders Mapplethorpe's legacy from multiple perspectives, interweaving his powerfully provocative images with contemporary musical, poetic, and theatrical responses from Dessner and his extraordinary team of creative and performance partners.
Art on Trial
In 1989, shortly before The Perfect Moment was to travel to Washington, DC, the host museum in the nation's capital (the since-closed Corcoran Gallery of Art) got cold feet and canceled, fearing loss of its NEA funding. But the most dramatic reactions took place when the show opened at Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center the following year (the exhibition had just completed a successful stay here at UC Berkeley, at the old Berkeley Art Museum on Bancroft Avenue). Local officials raided the museum and indicted its director on obscenity charges. Though the trial, which took place in the fall of 1990, resulted in acquittal, it marked the first time a US museum faced such serious charges simply for displaying artworks.
The effort led by Helms to restrict NEA funding of the arts—a parting gift of the Reagan era—involved fundamental democratic issues of censorship and state sponsorship of art and culture. It's also important to recall that unchallenged homophobia and anxiety about AIDS, at a fever pitch in the late 1980s, intensified the reactions against Mapplethorpe's subversive images of male nudes and his graphic depictions of gay sexuality and S&M. The artist himself had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and died in 1989, only a few months before the firestorm over The Perfect Moment got started.
Mapplethorpe's art continues to trigger deeply felt responses, including shock. Yet, as Triptych reveals, a new generation has discovered different reasons to be provoked by his boldly trailblazing photographs. This far into the Internet and Social Media era, "when everyone is a photographer and just a clickbait link away from extreme porn," as Dessner puts it, "what was shocking in the 1980s and '90s has shifted." Mapplethorpe's work is no longer evaluated as it was during the exhibition controversy, at least in terms of issues of obscenity and pornography.
Despite the ready availability of graphic sexual material in today's media, "these photos are still evocative and powerful," according to the theater artist Kaneza Schaal, Triptych's stage director. She locates the source of this power "in the vulnerability of sharing oneself" that Mapplethorpe conveys and "in the intimacy of his photos, along with questions of consent." At the same time, for Schaal, Mapplethorpe's modernism was tethered to "a Western, classical relationship to beauty. If we can destabilize that, then we can begin to see these photos in new and very different ways."
The impulse to reconsider Mapplethorpe's work is reflected in the highly diverse collaborative input that has gone into the making of Triptych. The playwright, poet, and photographer korde arrington tuttle, who wrote the libretto, was born the year that the notorious Cincinnati obscenity trial took place. Yet he recalls discovering Mapplethorpe's work in college. He became intrigued by Mapplethorpe's relationship with religious iconography and with the punk star and poet Patti Smith, the photographer's close friend and muse (and former lover).
tuttle found his way into the libretto by deciding to incorporate the perspective of Essex Hemphill (1957–1995), the poet and activist who bore witness to gay African-American liberation at the height of the AIDS crisis. Hemphill addressed what he saw as the artist's exploitation of black bodies in his trenchant critique "The Perfect Moment, For Robert Mapplethorpe," challenging the notion of an "objective" aesthetic: "is it desire/equality/disgust or hatred?" Immediately following this setting, which starts Triptych's final panel, tuttle's libretto segues into one of the most disturbingly multilayered lines of his libretto: "when you shoot a black body...."
"Identifying as black and queer, I also had very real questions about objectification and relationships to America and white supremacy," explains tuttle. "There were great challenges working on a piece that trips so many red wires. It interrogates very intimate and combustible and emotional spaces." The dynamic reactions evoked by Mapplethorpe's body of work also came alive "as present and real in the rehearsal room, as part of a collaboration that crosses boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, and generations. I am so proud of each of my collaborators."
"There are many ways to engage an audience," according to Cal Performances executive and artistic director Jeremy Geffen. "Triptych accomplishes this by approaching viewers from several directions at once—through Mapplethorpe's striking visuals, the immense musical gifts of Bryce Dessner and the talented performers and creators he has assembled, the artistry of poetry and the spoken word, and the boldness of a thrilling theatrical production. This important new piece reflects on an incident from the not-too-distant past, drawing attention to questions of censorship, identity, and the AIDS crisis. Most importantly, it also explores what these questions reveal about who we are, as a society, today. Cal Performances is proud to launch our season with such an important project, and even more proud to act as the production's co-commissioner."
"It's the most ambitious project I've ever done in terms of scope," the Paris-based Dessner remarked during a break from his late-summer tour with the indie rock band The National, for which he plays guitar and keyboards. A sought-after composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music—Esa-Pekka Salonen has already tapped him to be one of his creative partners as the San Francisco Symphony's incoming music director—Dessner has long made a practice of collaborating across artistic disciplines. But he points out that the composite elements of Triptych called for an even more intensive process of working together than usual.
"This wasn't the tradition of me just handing over a finished score... the collaborative process was crucial," says the composer. He emphasizes the contributions of the performers in particular. The extraordinary flexibility of the innovative, eight-member vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth opened up a vast repertoire of vocal styles, such as the Renaissance madrigal sound world that served as Dessner's first musical image. At the start, Triptych incorporates a section from Monteverdi's madrigal Sestina (Tears of a Lover at the Tomb of the Beloved), which reappears as a kind of leitmotif, in mutated versions that exploit Roomful's variety of vocal techniques.
Roomful founder Brad Wells, who is Triptych's music director, explains that "the sound of the body in the voice became a topic of conversation" when Dessner was workshopping ideas with the ensemble. "Through much of the experience of Triptych you are primarily focused on these beautiful images of bodies—an amazing range of physicality. It was important to let the sound of the body come through in all the voices."
Dessner also found inspiration adapting his score to the musical personalities of the two vocal soloists: mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, who sings Gospel-inflected music, and Isaiah Robinson, a tenor with an astonishing range. Both soloists, according to Wells, contribute "a very natural improvisatory quality."
In keeping with the multiple layers of response Mapplethorpe's art inspires as well as the collaborative diversity of Triptych's creators, Dessner's score is ambitiously polystylistic, freely moving from classical vocal techniques to a cornucopia of American idioms. Roomful of Teeth ranges across "Baroque madrigal, Appalachian folk song, Manhattan Transfer-style close harmony, and buzzing rock anthem with ease," to quote Wells' catalogue of styles. "And there are solos in the style of African-American spiritual and pop songs suited to the voices of experienced jazz singers."
Dessner settled on a tight, nine-person chamber ensemble for his orchestral setting (string trio, clarinet, horn, two percussionists, electric guitar, and piano/harmonium), which the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will perform at Zellerbach Hall. He recalls being impressed by the "thin, translucent orchestration" of Claude Vivier's Kopernicus, which he took as a model for the timbre he wanted, electric guitar serving as an allusion to the world of Patti Smith.
Immersion in the Mapplethorpe archives was likewise a crucial part of the process to prepare Triptych. "The images we came across there were incredible," says Dessner. "Mapplethorpe was able to see so many things. More than half the images in the show are lesser-known ones." Visiting the archives was revelatory for tuttle as well. "I was blown away by what I discovered there: a whole Robert Mapplethorpe I had never experienced. It felt like I had happened upon a secret: the way he spent time with nature and water and trees—and animals especially (dogs, cats, birds)—and children and black women. His images are not only about hunky or chiseled men. There's a tenderness in the way in which he captures folks at rest, or who are disabled."
Following the Los Angeles Philharmonic's concert premiere of Triptych last March, the show has been presented as part of an extensive, ongoing tour in its fully staged version, directed by Kaneza Schaal, with set and costumes by Carlos Soto and lighting by Yuki Nakase. "There are different layers of screens that function as images, so we get to play with scale," explains Schaal. "Mapplethorpe's images are shown at a scale they were never meant to be seen at originally."
A key dramaturgical idea is the silent presence of the choreographer and actor Martell Ruffin, an observer who watches the performance and the audience. He continually reminds us of the complexity of both "looking and being looked at": an enactment of Triptych's Essex Hemphill-inspired subtitle Eyes of One on Another.
"All of us are bringing our own ghosts into this project. Martell literalizes this haunting at the edge of the frame," according to Schaal. "As director, I am arranging this amazing tapestry of artists who come with all these different impulses and curiosities and desires—some overlapping, some diverging—and making sure it doesn't tear."
Given the scale of the project, the timeframe for scoring Triptych was relatively compressed. But Dessner had been contemplating the ideas behind it for years. As a teenager growing up in Cincinnati when the obscenity trial dominated the news there, he recalls feeling that art itself was on trial. "Surprisingly little has changed in those issues," he says. It was also around that time that he became excited by Patti Smith and other 1970s punk rock innovators, which he singles out as a huge influence on his band The National.
Triptych pulls these disparate elements together through a structure that connects that pivotal moment in 1990 with current sensibilities. The title refers to the three portfolios (X, Y, and Z) under which Mapplethorpe organized and presented distinct categories of his black-and-white images: images involving gay S&M acts (X), floral still-lifes (Y), and African-American males in homoerotic poses (Z). At the same time, a tripartite thematic scenario is superimposed involving Mapplethorpe's preoccupation with Renaissance ideals of beauty (X), the Cincinnati trial (Y), and—the largest of the three sections—a dialectic juxtaposing the artist's use of black bodies with the (critical) voice of Essex Hemphill (Z).
The connotations of "Triptych"—bringing to a mind a religious artwork decorating an altar—also complicate the Renaissance love of pagan, classical beauty that was a key aesthetic orientation for Mapplethorpe and recall the rebel's origins as the son of devoutly Catholic parents. Still another Triptych is the one constructed from the union of image, music, and word—but a Gesamtkunstwerk that resists being unified, its composite elements deliberately straining against a single, totalizing experience.
tuttle's libretto is richly associative and elliptical. Even the most explicitly "straightforward" middle section, with its direct references to the trial transcript, avoids linear narrative. The first section weaves in texts by Patti Smith (including her poem "The Boy Who Loved Michelangelo"), while Essex Hemphill comes to the fore in the lengthy Z section. Triptych culminates in Hemphill's searing, visionary poem "American Wedding," with its alternative vision of desire and hope amid racist violence.
Initially, tuttle even considered titling the entire work American Wedding. "To have these two artists coexisting was a very important part of the work for me," says Dessner. "Essex Hemphill's words helped open the door onto how these images feel relevant for us in 2019. Like other great American artists, Mapplethorpe saw into the complex beauty and hypocrisy of American identity and was able to show that to us and challenge us in ways that were surprising. And the images are still unbelievably powerful."
The Cincinnati trial in 1990 ended up exonerating Mapplethorpe's art of charges of obscenity. But Triptych in one sense brings it back into the courtroom to be retried—this time, with a jury of artistic peers representing diverse perspectives and backgrounds. The critique of Mapplethorpe is integral to the homage that Triptych extends today, 30 years after his death. Blind adulation, in contrast, would be a lazy, half-hearted response to the complexity of his art.
tuttle believes that we have done "a great disservice to Robert Mapplethorpe's legacy by sensationalizing the work. We get distracted by our feelings—back then and now. Not that much has changed! It's challenging because it forces you to confront uncomfortable things within yourself."
"I'm always interested in artwork that provides platforms for public dialogue," says Schaal, "and Mapplethorpe's work united the public imagination in a powerful way. Of late our tendency has been to erase controversial works. My own feeling as an artist is to address them. How can the next generation rethink the art of Mapplethorpe in all its problematic glory?"
Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. He is an editor for the Lucerne Festival and contributes to such publications as the New York Times and Musical America. He also blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.