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"A beautiful angel with something devilish about him":
An interview with Gemano Celant

A throng of guests crowded the press preview of Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. TV teams set themselves up in front of a wall showing prints from the 16th century together with photographs by the New York photographer, who died in 1989. Dutch Mannerism meets the American nude photograph - a daring experiment by anyone's standard. Germano Celant, head curator for contemporary art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, was responsible for the juxtaposition. Celant already exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs in Europe in the eighties and has written numerous catalogue texts on the artist's work and person. Today, Mapplethorpe is considered a classic of contemporary photography, while Celant, who also curated the 1997 Venice Biennale, is one of the most influential exhibition makers in the world. In an interview with Harald Fricke and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf , he turns out to be a refreshingly unpretentious conversation partner.

Germano Celant, Photos: Maria Morais

When was the first time you had contact with Robert Mapplethorpe's work?

I saw his show at the Holly Solomon Gallery in 1976. It was a very unusual kind of show from my point of view. My background is in art history. I'm always interested in whatever breaks the rules of history. Initially, I became interested in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Gehry, and the photographer Joel Peter Witkin because their work is related to history. If you examine the quotations they use, you discover that Mapplethorpe refers to Classicism and Witkin to the Baroque period. For me, it is exactly this background that allows me to approach other visual languages. When I saw those early pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe in the Holly Solomon show, especially his self-portraits, they seemed to say: "Look, here I am, male and female at the same time." This was something that nobody was openly saying at the time. If you think about Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol - everybody was gay, but they weren't talking about it. It was very powerful for a photographer to get up on stage and say "I am taking responsibility for being what I am," and show it to his friends, who were exactly the same - it was something to think about. But this was not the only remarkable thing about Mapplethorpe's works. The pictures he took looked very classical to me.

How would you define "classical"?

Robert Mapplethorpe: Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, 1979
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

His works represented a way of controlling the weirdness and the radical themes in images throughout the history of art. If you think about Mapplethorpe's portrait Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (1979), you might be reminded of Velasquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650). You see one of the two men in the position of the pope; the assistant is connected to him with a chain. That's a very radical gesture, but the way of showing it is completely traditional. I realized that this guy had a certain knowledge. He knew about tough things, he was taking a risk, but he knew how to control the representation. For me this was absolutely remarkable, and I retained his work in my mind until meeting him personally. He was a beautiful angel, but he also had something devilish about him. In fact, he gave me his Self-Portrait from 1985 as a gift - the one that shows him as a devil with horns. We became close friends, but not in a sexual sense - as you know, he was interested in black men. I started to visit his studio regularly and we talked quite a bit. I asked him if we could work together, and then we did the first book with Lisa Lyon. I met Lisa, wrote the introduction, and then we started to share a common universe. I always used to stay with artists until I had my own house in the nineties. I stayed with Christo, I stayed with Claes Oldenburg, and for a time I stayed with Robert at his studio. He had an apartment on Bleeker Street and a studio on Bond Street, and this was where I was allowed to sleep after midnight - next to the darkroom. But sometimes I didn't sleep and spent the nights looking through all his files - this was how I discovered a lot of his photography.

If you look at the physique magazines or gay pornography from the fifties and sixties, the homosexual aesthetics of that time were also influenced by classical imagery. Even today, those classical motifs are part of a very common homosexual language of desire.

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