A New York City Embrace

Featured / What Makes It Great? / November 5, 2019

I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does

From “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths


By Elin Spring

Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals and David Hilliard. All three men are famous for their photographic portraiture and all three have exhibits currently on view in New York City. Just as coincidentally, they share some commonalities, not least of which is a creative drive fueled by attitudes they endured in their Roman Catholic families, as well as society at large, regarding their homosexuality. However, it should come as no surprise that their portraiture is unique and their exhibits distinctive, owing in part to the fact that Hilliard’s Just So is a mid-career gallery exhibit (on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery through December 7th, 2019), Michals’ Illusions of the Photographer is a full-career museum retrospective, in conversation with pieces he selected from the collections of the Morgan Library & Museum (on view through February 2nd, 2020) and the Guggenheim’s Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now focuses on the legendary photographer’s legacy by including the work of six contemporary artists (on view through January 5th, 2020.)


“Darkroom Mirror (_2060999), 2017” from the series Darkroom Mirror by Paul Mpagi Sepuya (b. 1982), courtesy of the artist and team (gallery, inc.), New York.

Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now at the Guggenheim presents a selection of portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, casting them into provocative conversations with the work of contemporary artists Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, who bring their own modes of upheaval to the medium of portraiture. Most of these artists have stood on Mapplethorpe’s shoulders to expand the boundaries of gender and sexual politics, from Opie’s raw self-mutilations to Sepuya’s tangles of human and camera bodies reflected in angled mirrors.

Glenn Ligon’s installation at the Implicit Tensions exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

But to me, the most thought-provoking engagement with Mapplethorpe’s work comes from conceptual artist Glenn Ligon. Between two long rows of mediocre reproductions from Mapplethorpe’s landmark “The Black Book” (1986) – a collection of stunning photographs of black men – Ligon peppers two rows of commentary on the book, ranging from luminaries such as philanthropist Walter Annenberg, Senator Jesse Helms and writer James Baldwin to religious evangelists and people Ligon met in a bar. Their thoughts function like a fuse, reigniting the fire regarding racial representation and the agency of his photographic subjects that has smoldered beneath the unassailable beauty of Mapplethorpe’s photographs. https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/mapplethorpe

“Paradise Regained, 1968”, Six gelatin silver prints, Ed. AP V/V, Gift of Duane Michals; 2018.491: 1-6, courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum, N.Y. (installation photo by Elin Spring, with apologies).

Illusions of the Photographer is a spirited mash-up of Duane Michals’ first full-career retrospective mounted by a NYC museum with a savory sprinkling of artist-chosen morsels from the Morgan Library’s vaults. How to approach an artist who transcends conventional photography with his diminutive narrative sequences, distinctive scrawling in the margins – by turns comedic and poignant – and relentless philosophical questioning? The Morgan presents Michals’ work in ten categories, so sympathetic to Michals’ expansive, energetic quest for the meaning of life (e.g. “Reflection,” “Time,” and “Immortality”) that it works.

“128th Psalm (Study for “Five Psalms), 1968”, by Henry Pearson (American 1914-2006), India ink, Gift of Regina and Lawrence Dubin, M.D.; 2009.7, courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum, N.Y. (installation photo by Elin Spring, with apologies).

Vitrine containing the gold-embossed “Portefeuille de Monsieur de Voltaire,” courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum, N.Y. (installation photo by Elin Spring, with apologies).

Whether illuminating a couple’s unspoken tension with his revelatory text (“because pictures are rarely worth a thousand words”), spinning fantastical, multi-frame allegories or finding inspiration in Morgan Library treasures like Henry Pearson’s “128th Psalm, 1968” (“I love his energy”) or Voltaire’s ornately embossed, blood red briefcase (“he was a raging atheist, like me”), Michals and Joel Smith, the adroit exhibit curator, have assembled a deeply satisfying exhibit. Humor is Michals’ ever-ready spear, skewering the human condition with an uplifting conviction that sharing our imperfect lives is a profoundly rewarding experience. As Michals mused at an opening day exhibit walk-through, “some say living well is the best revenge, but I think the best revenge is humor.” https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/duane-michals

Joel Smith, Richard L. Menschel Curator and Department Head, Photography (left) and artist Duane Michals (right) at an exhibit walk-through on opening day (installation photo by Elin Spring).

“Hug” by David Hilliard (courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, N.Y.).

David Hilliard’s large-scale, multi-panel, environmental portraits in Just So weave part-fantasy, part-lifelike narratives, like Rudyard Kipling’s fables of the same title. Collaborating with family (most famously his father), friends, lovers and strangers, Hilliard’s meticulously staged frames function like bay windows, inviting outsiders to join in a tour of intimate human relationships.

“Home, Office, Evening, Day” by David Hilliard (courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery N.Y.).

Hilliard’s highly cinematic compositions derive dynamic energy from different focal points and converging multiple perspectives, along with a mellifluous balance of open spaces with juxtapositions and potent visual symbols like doorways, windows and mirrors.

“Five O’Clock Somewhere” by David Hilliard (courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, N.Y.)

By turns poignant, bemused and adoring, Hilliard explores bonds between mother and daughters, husband and wife, father and son – or in the humorous confrontation, “Five O’Clock Somewhere” – step-father and son, along with several works of the artist and his muse. But always, Hilliard’s is an empathetic gaze that embraces his subjects and invites us to share in the beauty, imperfections and mystery of their lives. http://www.yanceyrichardson.com/exhibitions/david-hilliard6

“Vapor” by David Hilliard (courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, N.Y.)

Feature Image: “Embrace, 1982) gelatin silver print by Robert Mapplethorpe (American 1946-1989), courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, N.Y., Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 98.4442.

Elin Spring

Previous Post

Best Photo Picks November 2019

Next Post

Public Versus Private in the Internet Age

0 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Story

Best Photo Picks November 2019

by Elin Spring and Suzanne Révy In this month when the days shorten, leaves abandon the trees, and temperatures drift...

October 31, 2019