The Wadsworth Atheneum will soon close (January 24) a wonderful show: Warhol & Mapplethorpe: Guise & Dolls. Those who don't get a chance to see it might want to check out the exhibition catalog (just $35) for its striking images, but also to muse upon how social mores change; in this case, how radicals lose their rebelliousness when social frames shift.
The Wadsworth show takes a sometimes-voyeuristic peek inside New York City's fluid gender identities scene during the 1970s and 1980s. Warhol, of course, was openly gay, sometimes flamboyantly so, whereas Mapplethorpe transitioned from bisexuality to exclusive homosexuality. Along the way, both artists explored sexual role-playing, androgyny, and the blurred lines of gender identity.
The Andy Warhol (1928-1987) side of the show demonstrates how Warhol's Polaroids of drag queens became his 1975 "Ladies and Gentlemen" series. Here we see Warhol as an artistic trickster who used the media of painting and printing to obliterate sexual identities that are clear in the photographs. Men wearing bad wigs and sporting five o'clock shadows become glam subjects once the medium changes. The show also puts Warhol himself behind the camera–Christopher Makos' "Altered Images" photos in which Warhol strikes poses in his street clothes, but wearing makeup. He stares blankly at the camera, the effect of which is to locate him somewhere in the androgynous middle between male and female. This is quintessential Warhol, an emotion-dumped ennui that makes us wonder whether he has a point or is simply too lazy to make one. It's the flip side of the perpetual question of whether Warhol was a serious artist, or just a person with enough talent to dabble at being one.
There is no such reservation over Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), who had as much talent as anyone who has ever picked up a camera. Two highlights of the show are his images of rock-poet Patti Smith and female body-builder Lisa Lyon. There are also shots of friends in gender-bending poses and BDSM shots of himself. The latter were the images that led to the 1990 First Amendment controversy in Cincinnati. In the end, the First Amendment triumphed, but the BDSM images are hard to view even now. I wonder, actually, if it might have been wise to have skipped them–not because I wish to censor, but because the Smith/Lyon series is more in keeping with the guise theme and Mapplethorpe's homoerotic images are unambiguous. The Smith photos stun because Smith is the ultimate malleable subject, a figure that could be butch one moment, intersexual the next, and classically (even demurely) feminine when she wished to be. In like fashion, Lyon simply explodes notions about the female body. Or does she? The exhibit has what is now seems a rather overwrought piece of film in which Mapplethorpe presents Lyon as a woman who becomes a statue—but a statuesque one that becomes an archetype of female beauty.
Hearing anything conservative in all of this? On the surface, Warhol and Mapplethorpe appear to be ahead of their time. But here's the deal: I doubt this exhibit could be shown on a college campus these days–students would be outraged at both men's take on gender. If curator Patricia Hickson is to be believed, Warhol and Mapplethorpe saw gender as "a performance," and a conscious one at that. They had little sense of or interest in gender being anything other than a piece of theater. Although each would have defended freedom of choice—Warhol passively and Mapplethorpe openly–biology was not the issue that animated them. To put it in blunt terms, each would have agreed with today's conservatives that presenting gender was a "lifestyle choice." Their "So what?" rejoinder would have led to quick parted company, but it's hard to imagine either having a lot in common with those whose guises are chalked up to gender dysphoria. In their minds, art, gender, and theater were inextricably fused.
This is, admittedly, partly speculative on my part. Maybe each would have adjusted, even applauded expanded articulations of gender. (It's hard for me to imagine Warhol applauding anything!) The exhibit quotes Patti Smith's wonderful aphorism, "As far as I'm concerned, being any gender is a drag." That's catchy and clever, but would it satisfy those today who are deadly serious about transgender issues? Or, is the most anachronistic thing about the exhibit the innocence of approaching gender identity in an ironic, humorous, and self-absorbed fashion?