"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.