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Robert Mapplethorpe: Subject Object Image review – penises, perfection and Patti Smith

“He’s famous for his objectionable sexual representation,” Louise Bourgeois says gleefully in a BBC documentary on the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Bourgeois once sat for a portrait by Mapplethorpe, grinning maniacally at the camera while clutching her latex-covered, phallic-shaped sculpture Fillette. The documentary, shot in 1988 – a year before Mapplethorpe’s death – plays downstairs at Alison Jacques gallery, a finale to a new exhibition on his work.

Bourgeois recognised an affinity between her own work and Mapplethorpe’s. They both made a lot of works about the phallus, and at this exhibition, there’s no shortage of cocks. Mapplethorpe photographed them voraciously, sculpturally, with ebullient, ecstatic erotic desire. And – as demonstrated in a photograph of a protruding willy staged in a stand-off with a devil figurine – a dose of humour.

Sex and sexuality remained a theme throughout Mapplethorpe’s brief and brilliant career, cut short when the artist died, aged 42, from complications related to Aids. He met some of his subjects in bath houses, leather bars and BDSM clubs like the Mineshaft in downtown Manhattan he frequented. He also met lovers there. He photographed men and women, with a predilection for Black men. Among his most frequent muses was Ken Moody, a fitness instructor who posed for the photographer on numerous occasions between 1983 and 1985. According to Moody, there was no sexual chemistry between the two – Mapplethorpe simply saw Moody’s body as exemplary. Several images of Moody included here are extraordinarily sculptural. They are also astonishingly objectifying. Mapplethorpe’s interest in objectification is the crux of this exhibition – he was unabashed in embracing it: “I’m looking for perfection in form … it’s no different from one subject to the next.”

Mapplethorpe was engaged in an unrelenting pursuit of beauty, but he was also plagued by contradictions. Manichaean struggles are ever-present in Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white photographs, flitting between prurience and piety. Catholic imagery recurs , a hangover from his upbringing. One rare sculptural piece from 1971, a mirror latticed with wire mesh, recalls a confessional booth and sets the tone for the show. Dramatic drapery envelopes Patti Smith, as she disappears into the folds, her back turned to the camera. Devils contrast with roses – the Catholic symbol of martyrdom.

In the first room of silver gelatin prints, there are some riveting, simmering juxtapositions between Mapplethorpe’s worlds: a luxurious print of Mapplethorpe’s lover, Milton Moore, buttocks taut under fishnet tights; two men, their lower bodies wrapped in bandages, holding each other in a tight embrace; the simplicity of a single orchid in a vase. Whether inanimate or alive, Mapplethorpe levelled it all with his mastery of formalism. The delicacy of it knocks your breath away.

In a second room, the exhibition becomes baggy at the seams. Opposite a single picture of a penis let loose from formal suit trousers is a constellation of portraits of Mapplethorpe’s very famous friends and acquaintances in New York through the 1970s and 1980s. Haring, Warhol, Ono and de Kooning are all here, alongside Richard Gere, Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe himself. It’s great if you enjoy portraits of celebrities – I don’t. An irksome, oversized portrait of Steve Strange hangs in the centre, with a frame much thicker than the rest, which draws unwarranted attention. Blank stares and uninspired poses, the portraits left me cold. They fulfil the purpose of the exhibition – as the title Subject, Object, Image suggests – in that they show Mapplethorpe’s interest in objectifying all of his subjects. But as portraits, this approach leaves them flattened and dull. They show an unexpected side of Mapplethorpe – that he could be boring too.

Mapplethorpe today has cult status. He was among the first to treat photography as art, and to dare to transgress what could be turned into art. Though derailed by censorship over the years there’s an intensity in his vision that can’t be extinguished and remains perennially relevant.

A cluster of works downstairs add sparks of effervescent colour to put this show back on track. A series of staggering dye transfer prints from 1985, rarely exhibited before, bring orchids and tiger lilies into a heightened realm of sublime and sensual delight. Somehow, looking at a photograph of a flower here feels like looking at porn. Next, a photograph of a penis peeking back through a hole cut out of the back of white underpants looks more like a Courbet. That’s the Mapplethorpe magic.