Surprise: not everyone has something insightful to say about Robert Mapplethorpe.That’s the lesson from Robert Mapplethorpe: 50 Americans, for which Sean Kelly asked fifty volunteers from outside the art world (one from each state in the Union) to each choose a photograph from the Mapplethorpe Foundation’s archive. There are some clear museological pretentions at work here: the volunteers’ comments—both on each work and on Mapplethorpe as an artist—appear on wall-mounted placards, while a room at the front of the gallery is given over entirely to wall text and a self-portrait. Most strikingly, a broad stripe of burgundy paint circles the gallery walls, a display tactic more at home with war or travel photography than Mapplethorpe’s thoroughly contemporary work. The tone is emphatically welcoming and warm, and clearly aimed at the same broader public that make up the volunteers.
This is a show that depends on the wisdom of crowds with a striking (and probably excessive) degree of faith. If the objective was reopening the canon, the result makes us wonder why we bothered: while eight of the works were on public display for the first time, generally the participants chose works along the lines of a basic Mapplethorpe survey–flowers, penises, statuesque nudity, Lisa Lyon, and Patti Smith. It’s far from a radical reappraisal of his oeuvre. This lack of variety is matched in the comments given by the volunteers. They tend to resemble lone voices opining in the darkness, rather than the direct conversation about Mapplethorpe’s photographs that one might hope for.