Even as HBO’s “Vinyl” presents a fictionalized look at the music and drug scene in New York in the 1970s, the pay-cable channel’s new feature documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” presents the real-world art and drug scene of the era as it delves inside the life and times of the controversial photographer whose work continues to resonate decades after his death.
The title of the film is a quote from the ultraconservative Sen. Jesse Helms, who tried to use Robert Mapplethorpe’s depictions of nudity, sexuality and fetishism to legislate art and cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
More than a quarter of a century later, exhibits of Mapplethorpe’s work that Helms tried to shut down are drawing throngs of attendees at the Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both of which opened Mapplethorpe exhibits in March.
The preparation of those twin exhibits is used as a jumping off point in the film, directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, to explore the story of the man whom many consider one of the most important artists of the 20th century, a man who became even more famous after his death from AIDS in 1989.
The documentary traces Mapplethorpe’s early life in Queens, New York — including interviews with his brother and sister and old footage of his parents. It then tracks his career, which began in 1963 when he enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied drawing, painting and sculpture. It was also where he met his first girlfriend, the acclaimed musician and writer Patti Smith, the first of many influential lovers and muses in his life. (Her 2010 bestselling memoir, “Just Kids,” chronicles their relationship and is being adapted as a limited series for Showtime.)
By the late 1960s, he began taking Polaroid photographs of friends and acquaintances, eschewing the other art forms he had studied and setting a course that would make him renowned and rich.
Nearly all of the key relationships in Mapplethorpe’s life are presented in the film, including Smith, although she is heard from but not seen on camera. Others who are key: Sam Wagstaff, David Croland, Lisa Lyon, Marcus Leatherdale and Jack Walls.
There are also original interviews with friends, co-workers and colleagues including Carolina Herrera, Brooke Shields, Mary Boone, Fran Leibowitz, Debbie Harry, Helen and Brice Marden and Bob Colacello.
But the best insights come from his older sister Nancy and his youngest brother Edward. Edward, 14 years younger than Robert, worked with him in his Soho studio. One heart-wrenching story involves how Robert forced Edward to change his last name so as not to compete with him.
Other interviewees talk about Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle, which included frequenting gay bars for casual sex and his drug use. Several ex-boyfriends who were extensively photographed also describe their relationships.
The duality of Mapplethorpe’s black and white photography was also reflected in his life. He often mounted two shows simultaneously, with sexually explicit photographs on view downtown while society portraits and gentle flower still lifes were on display uptown.
Mapplethorpe’s most controversial work was that which he considered his most important, chronicling the underground BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism) scene of late 1970s New York City.
The works sparked a national debate over public funding of art that some deemed sensitive or obscene.
When Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, the illness was still basically a death sentence. For the remaining three years of his life, he worked more zealously than ever before, striving not only for perfection in his work but also to secure his legacy after his death. To that end, in 1988, a few months before he died, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective.
The film doesn’t censor anything. In a statement, Bailey and Barbato say: “Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers — in other words, exactly as the artist intended.”
And viewers will hear from Mapplethorpe himself, speaking with complete honesty and often shocking candor in rediscovered audio interviews.
(“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” premieres on HBO April 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)