Mapplethorpe: fusing originality with classicism. Also, a fascinating look at a forgotten pioneer of abstract painting

The rise to fame of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was relatively swift. He left Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, in 1970, began to attract serious national attention toward the end of the '70s, and by the early '80s was generally considered one of America's most original younger photographers. He was helped by the fact that the art-world elite accepted him almost immediately as a member of a very small group of photographers (including Cindy Sherman and Joel-Peter Witkin) whose participation in major survey shows was taken for granted. He ingratiated himself even further by producing remarkable portraits of artists and other art-world notables, several of which have become minor classics. And he then secured his reputation by holding successful museum exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam, and London.

Now the first-ever retrospective of his work has been organized by an American museum.

``Robert Mapplethorpe,'' an exhibition at the Whitney Museum here, includes 95 collages and photographs dating from 1970 to the present, some of which have never been exhibited before, as well as two painted wood-and-glass constructions of 1983. All were selected by the show's curator, Richard Marshall.

Although most of the photographs are in black-and-white, several of his recent color studies of flowers are also on view - including the beautiful and lyrical ``Poppy'' of 1988.

By and large, ``beautiful'' and ``lyrical'' are not words one immediately associates with Mapplethorpe. Not because they're not appropriate, but because one is more apt to think of his penetrating portraits and provocative but unerotic nudes, both of which place a much greater emphasis on character and confrontation than on beauty.

As a portraitist, he is direct and uncompromising, and expert at stripping away the carefully constructed fa,cades many of his subjects have fashioned for themselves, or have had fashioned for them by art-world publicists or a devoted public.

His 1986 study of Louise Nevelson, for instance, shows both the extraordinary vulnerability of this remarkable artist and her strident theatricality - no mean feat, considering how carefully she ``hid'' herself both in her art and in her public appearances.

In Mapplethorpe's work, Willem de Kooning, on the other hand, comes across as simply and openly as one could wish. And much the same is true of Louise Bourgeois, though in her case Mapplethorpe captures a delightful impishness.

Andy Warhol, as might be expected, remains a mask, but Mapplethorpe's 1987 portrait of him serves as a link between the photographer's precise depictions of art-world personalities and his more idealized studies of male heads, both full-face and in profile.

Included among the latter are some of his best pieces in the show. Three or four (especially ``Ken Moody'' and ``Ken Moody and Robert Sherman'') achieve a stunning, almost classical perfection of form.

Curator Marshall has included some nudes of young men that share this same quality. Mapplethorpe's willingness to treat male nudity as frankly as female nudity has long been treated in the world of photography has made him controversial. But his emphasis is not on the prurient. For example, the four photographs of ``Ajitto'' (1981) are particularly impressive for their crisp monumentality, in which honesty and style fuse seamlessly.

What is unfortunate about this side of his work is the kind of fawning critical attention - based primarily on the subject matter - Mapplethorpe has received lately. It tells us far more about the critics than about his art.

At the Whitney Museum through Oct. 23.

The mystery of Manierre Dawson

If you go to the Whitney, I suggest a visit to the small lobby gallery on the main floor to see the 25 experimental oils painted by Manierre Dawson (1887-1969) between 1909 and 1914. It's quite an eye-opener, especially since he and his art have remained largely unknown for the past 70 years.

And more's the pity, for he was the first American and probably one of the first artists anywhere to work in a non-objective style. He painted his abstract triptych ``Prognostics'' in Chicago in early 1910 - the same year that Kandinsky began his series of ``improvisations'' in Munich. And yet, Dawson could not possibly have known Kandinsky's paintings, even in reproduction.

He traveled to Europe in 1910, and while there was strongly influenced by Cubism. Gertrude Stein bought one of his paintings, and John Singer Sargent expressed enthusiasm for his work.

Upon his return to America, he was invited to exhibit in the famous 1913 Armory Show.

But all to no avail. In 1914, at the age of 27, he bought a cherry orchard in Michigan, married, and dropped out of the art world entirely.

Why he did so remains a mystery. What is clear, though, is that he was one of the most innovative and promising American artists of his generation. His paintings, on view at the Whitney through Sept. 11, are worth a long, hard look.

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