Spencer suggests Piero della Francesca as a better classical analogue for Mapplethorpe. She argues that Mapplethorpe’s dispassionate, almost mathematical approach to subjects such as Thomas (above, from 1987) follows the example of Piero more than that of the passionate, “agony and the ecstacy” Michelangelo. I’m not a big fan of the either/or dichotomy of passion version precision. There is certainly a great deal of precision and balance in all of Michelangelo’s figures at their most passionate. The David sculpture at the Galleria dell’Accademia sneers with defiance, but he stands balanced and almost symmetrically on two sturdy legs. Conversely, Mapplethorpe’s figures stretch themselves to the point of almost breaking to achieve his desired poses, but the rippling muscles and taut ligaments also speak of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s that rippled through and stretched the gay community to its limits. I see great passion in Derrick Cross, Thomas, and other photographs of Mapplethorpe from this period when such “perfect” bodies symbolized the breaking down of gay men’s bodies by disease and the failure of the American body politic to set aside prejudice and come to their aid.
Is the unspoken issue of this Mapplethorpe—Michelangelo pairing the artists’ shared sexual orientation? Michelangelo’s sexuality remains a topic of debate for scholars, but works such as Prigione Barbuto (above, 1530), one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures of slaves, make more sense when seen in a homoerotic way. Sadly, Mapplethorpe remains the untouchable third rail of American art history for many museums, even twenty years after his death by AIDS. Perhaps only in Europe could Mapplethorpe be allowed to stand beside masters of the Western heritage, whereas American art continues to segregate Mapplethorpe and other homosexual artists into a defined zone separate from the mainstream. “Here, the absence of sex shots haunts the show like Banquo’s Ghost,” Spencer writes of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfection of Form’s lacking of Mapplethorpe’s more notoriously explicit photographs. Perhaps the best way to exorcise that erotic ghost once and for all is to allow it to walk freely and be seen, not only for better understanding Mapplethorpe but also for better understanding Michelangelo.