Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form

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There have been copious shows of Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photography in the years since his AIDS-related death in 1989, but none of those exhibitions has reached the grandeur of Perfection in Form at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy. Home to Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of David and other great Renaissance works of art, the Accademia opens its sacred galleries to contemporary art and photography for the very first time.

Inspired by a conversation between musician and artist Patti Smith — Mapplethorpe’s first companion and muse — and art historian Jonathan K. Nelson, co-curator of the show, Perfection in Form mixes the sculptures and drawings of Michelangelo with Mapplethorpe’s formalist nudes, portraits, and still lifes. Nelson and Franca Falletti, director of the Galleria dell’Accademia, have assembled more than 100 works by the two artists to construct a conversation between the past and present — and what Smith describes as a “realization of Robert’s dream.”

Mapplethorpe’s nude figure studies of female body-builder Lisa Lyons and sculpted black musclemen Ken, Thomas, Ajitto, and Tyler are juxtaposed with Michelangelo’s Sketch for the Risen Christ in the Last Judgment and marble sculpture The Bearded Prisoner. The old master’s drawings of hands are compared to the contemporary photographer’s fragmented body parts. Meanwhile, Mapplethorpe’s use of square and circular framing devices for portraits and figure studies are shown in relation to Michelangelo’s ground plans for churches.

Additionally, an abstract etching by Brice Marden and a group of Electric Chair prints by Andy Warhol — both artists Mapplethorpe photographed — and a photograph and sculpture of nude torsos by Man Ray, an artist who influenced Mapplethorpe, are on view, along with a photograph of a sculpture by Italian modernist Ettore Spalletti, which keeps the dialogue going. Elsewhere, Mapplethorpe’s splendid black-and-white images of calla lilies, irises, bread, and grapes simply delight the eye.

While not the first show to associate the art of Robert Mapplethorpe with classical works — The Guggenheim Museum’s Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition, from 2004, intriguingly compared many of the same photographs with Flemish Mannerist engravings — this show, which travels in 2010 to the Museo d’Arte della Città di Lugano in Switzerland, offers a fresh take on a compelling artist.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form, which is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, published by teNeues, is on view at the Galleria dell’Accademia through January 10, 2010. View a slideshow of featured works here>>