Robert Mapplethorpe

Lisa Lyon, 1982. Courtesy of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Whether photographing naked black men, flowers, or the sadomasochistic scenarios in which he often participated, Robert Mapplethorpe, who died from AIDS in 1989, invariably elevated his disparate subject matter to the realm of high art. Now, some 25 years after a Mapplethorpe exhibition that included graphic sexual images incited criminal-obscenity charges against Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are co-presenting “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium.” The show highlights a trove of editioned prints and archival artworks that the institutions jointly acquired in 2011. The Getty portion (March 15 through July 31) focuses on Mapplethorpe’s Apollonian side—his portraiture and studio practice, along with his interest in classicism and art history. His Dionysian side will be showcased at LACMA (March 20 through July 31) and includes his explorations of the sexual underground, as well as the permeable boundary between his art and his life. Mapplethorpe, says LACMA curator Britt Salvesen, “liked the provocation of the polished and the rough,” but she notes that the artist, known for his refined composition and lighting, ultimately “challenged us to see his coherent vision.”