365 Days of Art: April 7 – Mapplethorpe Exhibition Opens, Leading to Obscenity Charges

Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1979

April 7, 1990

An exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, entitled The Perfect Moment, opens at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center; within hours, the Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, are indicted on obscenity charges.

I saw this exhibition when it traveled to the University Art Museum in Berkeley, CA. It was stunning, and at times shocking for this teenager from a small town. The show featured quite a few images of flowers–I remember lilies and orchids in particular–the most exquisite flowers you can imagine, in full, glorious bloom. At the exact moment of culmination and ripeness–the perfect moment, before they would turn and begin to wilt. There were also many nude images of men, likewise in full bloom–gorgeously toned bodies, at an age of full maturity but without any visible signs of wear-and-tear. The images were homoerotic, some showing beautiful men standing very close to each other, not even looking at each other but seeming to breathe the other in or sometimes mirroring each other’s pose; other images portrayed men with chains and leather who were obviously coupled up. Some of these images featured interracial relationships, which I think created an additional (though unspoken) edge to the exhibition in some minds. I remember a few images that startled me in their revelation of private moments–some explicit sexual moments, yes–one of them being a self portrait of the artist dying of AIDS.

At that time and place–San Francisco in 1990–when to walk down the street was to walk by men withering away from AIDS, to know their disease by their skeletal thinness, the hollows in their cheeks, the stoop in their backs, and the purple Kaposi’s sarcoma blemishes on their skin; to not just know their disease, but to know their imminent death–this exhibition took me by the shirt collar and shook me.

It said, to my teenaged, small-town self (newly and happily arrived in a big city): Life is a spectrum, and a continuum. There is beauty to be seen in a myriad of places. There is beauty in flowers reaching for the light, in perfectly toned, timeless-looking bodies, in the way two men in leather and chains proclaim their relationship to the world, in the artist defiantly staring at the viewer while brandishing a death’s head cane. These moments are powerful, and we collect a number of them in our lives (a good deal of them, I hope). These photographs felt like living, even while they hinted at dying. And with so much death around, it felt vital to be reminded of living. They didn’t promise anything beyond the moment, but not in the saccharine or self-destructive way that that message so often takes. They were real. And I think that’s why they so inflamed some who would try to keep that experience from us.

The Perfect Moment is one of my favorite art exhibitions of all time and resonates with me to this day.

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