We’re both students at Cornell, and the graduate faculty convinced us to attend an academic conference in DC where the best and brightest would be presenting papers in communication.
Michelle and I attended session after session, witnessing 20-minute presentations about television’s effects on kids and reviews of public opinion theories.
Some of the talks seemed esoteric and we longed to hear a discussion about something applied. We teased each other about the sang froid of the faculty. Michelle knew I was bound for a career in academia and made me promise I would never wear sensible shoes. I agreed.
By the third day of the conference Michelle was ready to bounce. She’s heard about a controversial exhibition that featured renderings replete with religious images and homoerotica.
I had no interest but Michelle insisted and we legged it to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit.
Signs warned us that the art was only for mature viewers. Michelle explained that his art had been so controversial that the Corcoran refused to show it, and we travelled to the installation at the Washington Project for the Arts, which agreed to sponsor the exhibit.
She tried to convince me the show would be part of history and I just scoffed.
The first images were breathtaking black and white photographs–still life images: mostly flowers. We moved from viewing still lives to portraits. The images were stunning.
We wandered through small rooms and found installations with religious imagery juxtaposed with poems and jewelry. I could see why some folks would be offended.
Curtains cloaked a film installation showing Mapplethorpe having his nipple pierced. The film continually looped and Mapplethorpe had his nipple pierced over and over.
We entered a room with more signs warning us of the images within and beheld a long series of black and white images of men, body parts and sexual acts.
The photos were both disturbing and artistic: their composition stunning and memorable. It was hard to look and yet hard to turn away.
Michelle was right: I never forgot that summer day in DC.
The images have been circling my consciousness because I picked up Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, a memoir about her foray into the artistic circles of New York with her friend and confidante Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a delightful read.
[Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984, Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe from http://www.mapplethorpe.org/portfolios/portraits/%5D