The current exhibit of self portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Skarstedt Gallery on 79th Street consists of ten prints, all except two of which are irregularly sized (i.e., not standard size enlarging paper, except for the two that are 16 x 20).
In most of the photos, Mapplethorpe is posing in various guises, all of them deliberately provocative, and his choice of roles is revealing. In one he poses in a leather jacket while smoking a cigarette - the very image of the gay underworld's "rough trade." In another (a platinum print measuring approximately 20 x 20), in which he wears horns similar to those seen in representations of the god Pan, his almost hostile stare serves as a direct challenge to all forms of conformance. In a third, he is heavily made up and in furs. Although the gallery's press release claims this last photo is a "direct reference" to Man Ray's famous photos of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy, I am not convinced of the connection barring further documentation that would support this claim. The resemblance is just not that clear cut. It may be simply that Mapplethorpe wanted a photo of himself in makeup and drag and liked this particular outfit. In any event, even if the attribution were correct, it would seem to me not so much a "homage to Duchamp" as to the photographer Man Ray.
The photo that Mapplethorpe took of himself when he knew he was dying of AIDS is by far the most devastating in the exhibit. Shot against a black backdrop with the photographer / sitter wearing a black turtleneck, Mapplethorpe grips tightly a walking stick surmounted by a death's head. The camera's focus is on the hand holding the cane. Due to the shallow depth of field, Mapplethorpe's disembodied pale face hovers slightly out of focus in the background to make it seem he were already a ghost. Through the use of selective focus, the sculpted death's head is made to appear more real and "alive" than the dying photographer himself.
The most interesting moment at the exhibit came as I was preparing to leave and stepped into an office to see a close up photo of the death's head cane. I asked the gallery attendant if all the photos on display had been printed by Tom Baril. To my surprise, the attendant replied that many of the photos had been printed by Mapplethorpe himself. When I informed her that to the best of my knowledge, based on my reading of the biography by Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe had never done any darkroom work in the course of his career, she marveled: "Well, you learn something new every day."
The exhibit continues through June 15, 2013.