HARTFORD — Kenneth Tynan, that keenest of theater critics, famously suggested that Marlene Dietrich “has sex but no positive gender.” Forget positive or negative: Did Andy Warhol even have sex? The fact, not the act. Robert Mapplethorpe sure did. He was musk made flesh.
Such thoughts come to mind throughout “Warhol & Mapplethorpe: Guise & Dolls,” which runs at the Wadsworth Atheneum through Jan. 24. “Guise & Dolls” really is the subtitle. There are no self-aware chuckles quite like curatorial self-aware chuckles. Only musical-theater geeks and the elderly are likely to get the pun. Luck be a lady when, exactly?
The show consists of just over 100 works: mostly photographs, but also silkscreens, books, album covers, and several videos. In one way or another, all explore sexual identity and gender. They range in date from 1973 to 1988, a year after Warhol’s death — and a year before Mapplethorpe’s.
Despite the proximity of their deaths, Warhol and Mapplethorpe were born 18 years apart, a generational gap that can be felt throughout the show. Mapplethorpe revels in the loosening of sexual attitudes in the ’70s. It’s the sea in which he swims — and dives. Warhol is more like a man sunning himself on the beach — alongside the water, but never quite in it.
It’s easy to imagine Warhol’s fascination with Mapplethorpe’s frankness, whether it take the form of sadomasochistic images or a general assertiveness of sexual outlawry. It’s impossible to imagine Warhol behaving in a similar artistic fashion. More than just a matter of age and personality, it was a function of style. Warhol’s work, at its most innovative no less than at its most derivative, is about surfaces and mediation. Plumbing depths, moral or artistic, was antithetical to his imaginative enterprise.
Habitues of Warhol’s Factory liked to call him Drella — Dracula + Cinderella. The name represented the two sides of his personality: vicious monster and enchanted (if not necessarily enchanting) innocent. Note that the name also combines male with female.
Warhol explored that duality in his 1975 series of portraits of drag queens, “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Rendered in bright acrylics and silkscreen ink, they’re sloppy-garish and imposing-big, 50 by 40 inches. Garishness and scale emphasize their fundamental coyness. A similar coyness can be seen in Polaroids by Warhol and photographs by Christopher Makos of Warhol cross-dressing. The show includes a nearly hourlong video of the photo shoot.
What keeps the coyness from cloying, unlike in drag queen portraits, is the leavening of playfulness. Although Warhol could never approach Mapplethorpe’s degree of candor — that famously blank expression of his was the ultimate mask to hide behind — he possessed a wit that the younger man simply lacked. The famous 1985 Mapplethorpe self-portrait where he’s wearing devil’s horns verges on kitsch precisely because he doesn’t see how risible it is. This is self-congratulation masquerading as naughtiness — a term-paper version of transgression. Or there’s the preening quality to Mapplethorpe’s own excursions into drag. Warhol always got the joke. Mapplethorpe thought joking a distraction, at best, and inauthentic, at worst.
Is it too much to sense a wariness between the two men? It seems there in the portraits they did of each other. One that Warhol did in 1983 suggests that he bought into the Mapplethorpe pose of devilishness. Both Mapplethorpe’s complexion and the background are a hellish red. Mapplethorpe takes the opposite theological approach. A 1987 portrait shows Warhol with a halo-like radiance framing his head; and the addition of four silk panels creates a cruciform shape.
During the early ’80s, Mapplethorpe took many photographs of the female body builder Lisa Lyon . It’s almost as if she unnerved him — and unnerving Robert Mapplethorpe was no mean trick. A photograph of her emerging nude from the surf is so SoCal glam it’s like Herb Ritts goes to the gym (a compliment to neither photographer). Conversely, a couple of shots of Lyon from behind turn her into a homoerotic totem.
Lyon’s blocky build, a kind of steroidal drag, could hardly contrast more with the androgynous look of Mapplethorpe’s other muse, Patti Smith. In the famous cover of her first LP, “Horses,” Mapplethorpe shoots her in a man’s suit. The indeterminacy of gender is part of what makes the image arresting. Even so, it’s not nearly as arresting as a 1978 photograph of Smith cutting her hair. Staring into the camera — and no one stares the way Patti Smith does — she’s Samson and Delilah. Talk about playing with sexual identity! The pair of scissor blades are meant for business, and their shearing seriousness of purpose mocks the pair of horns in the Mapplethorpe self-portrait. Nothing else in the show compares for sheer eroticism.
WARHOL & MAPPLETHORPE: Guise & Dolls
At Wadsworth Atheneum,
600 Main St., Hartford. Through Jan. 24, 860-527-0803, www.thewadsworth.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.