Artist Andy Warhol mocked it, club king Michael Alig embraced it and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe perfected it — the fame game. After making movies about the first two, producer-directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (Party Monster, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, RuPaul's Drag Race) turned their lens to Mapplethorpe, who used fame and self-promotion (along with immense talent) to build a legendary art career. Perhaps best remembered today as the catalyst for many debates over art versus obscenity and the subject of Patti Smith's award-winning Just Kids memoir, Mapplethorpe was also a big ol' fame whore, whose go for glory figures heavily in Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. The must-see feature-length documentary debuts on HBO on April 4.
SF Weekly caught up with Emmy-winning filmmaker Randy Barbato about directing the “definitive” Mapplethorpe documentary, reconciling the fame whore with the creative genius and why Mapplethorpe's transgressive images from the '70s and '80s have such an impact today.
[jump] There are already a couple Mapplethorpe documentaries out there that I'm aware of. What is so definitive about yours?
One of the most important things about the documentary is that Mapplethorpe is the narrator. We spent a lot of time digging up audio tapes from journalists from 30-35 years ago. We use his words to narrate the film. That kind of sets it apart in that there's been a lot written about him, but in this film we really made an effort to be guided by his words and make it come from him — so much to the extent that Fenton is convinced that Mapplethorpe is the third co-director. He's convinced that we've been divined to make it, and he's been orchestrating it from somewhere, hopefully above.
We also have almost 500 of his pieces of art in it, so it's a really great look at the evolution of his artistic trajectory, and I think for a lot of people that will be surprising. I think a lot of people know just a little bit about Mapplethorpe. They know about the flower pictures or some of the explicit work. But he was this really impressive and prophetic artist who produced so much work in his short life, so I think looking at his early artwork, even when he was in elementary school, I think that will surprise a lot of people. We were very fortunate that the Getty and LACMA in Los Angeles were planning this joint retrospective, so they worked with us and gave us access, as well as obviously The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, who really control all of his work and such.
You have such a variety of voices in the film, commenting on Mapplethorpe from friends and family, lovers and an early priest to art world fixtures, journalists and artists like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry.
The interesting thing about Mapplethorpe was that he was a singular artist, but kind of a serial collaborator. He collaborated with many people, many of them lovers. He was also very canny. He befriended many journalists throughout his career, so many of them are in the film as well. It's interesting because you see this pattern. He understood the importance of not only producing great art but also creating a public image, and so he was a pioneer in terms of that. There was Andy Warhol, and now it's an obvious idea. But in the '70s, that wasn't a very popular idea. Artists were more precious then. They were discovered; they didn't try to get written about on Page Six.
You and Fenton Bailey lived in the East Village in the '80s. Did you ever cross paths with him?
No, but since we sort of ran on parallel tracks, we were aware of him, almost more as a brand than anything else. The Mapplethorpe name was something that we knew, and we had mutual friends but never actually knew him. I do remember seeing some of his work.
Were you impressed or horrified?
It's weird. I really had some ambivalent feelings about it. I didn't know his work enough to fully judge it then, so it took making this documentary and looking at his body of work to really appreciate his artistry. I think Fenton and I were ambivalent about lots of aspects of Robert Mapplethorpe, and that's an unusual thing for us going into a documentary because we usually go in with a very clear set idea or at least really liking somebody. But with Mapplethorpe we were more ambivalent. But we walked away really liking him and his work.
Where did the ambivalence come from?
I think maybe initially I might have been judgmental about his ambition. I'd heard about it. It was not a secret.
The film is very open about all that. Some people walk away from the film with mixed feelings about him. I walked away from making the film, admiring his brutal honesty. What he applied to the way he made his art was the way he lived his life. I think it was all out there. I like that about him a lot. He led a very authentic life.
Between the recent exhibits, your documentary and an upcoming Ondi Timoner biopic, Mapplethorpe seems to be having a major resurgence right now. Why the renewed interest?
I can't imagine this selfie-stick culture without Robert Mapplethorpe. There are many aspects to his legacy. It's a bit of an overreach to say that he's responsible for photography being seen as a fine art, but he was absolutely a major player in the transition of photography from a hobby to a fine art.
He contributed significantly to the openness of male eroticism. When he was living his life or making his art, I don't think it was very hip or accepted. Even being so overtly gay — that was intense back then — so I think he's a pioneer on many fronts. He wasn't very political, but his very presence was a political statement. Even today, when we have all these rights, he's still important, because I'm all for the queer in the LGBTQ community and for the queens. They're the ones who were incredibly visible back then. It's great that we've progressed, but it's sad that in so doing that, some of the assimilation into the heterosexual community feels like it's dampened some of the transgressive voices, which isn't just sexual transgressiveness. It's that queer creative thing.
His legacy is also his aesthetic. His art, his photography and the style of it has had an enduring impact. That sort of perfection, the flawlessness in terms of framing and lighting, I think that has an enduring impact.
In an era when anyone can google the kinkiest of fetishes and often get hundreds, if not thousands of relevant image results, is Robert Mapplethorpe's work still transgressive or even impactful?
Of course, his transgressive work is not his only work, but Fenton and I think that that challenging work is the most significant because he, himself, has said that the whole point of art is opening people's minds. So when you look at that work, that's what happens. So I think it still has the same impact today that it had then, because even though you can google and look at fist fucking, it's the context of seeing that work in a gallery or theater that's really important, particularly for our culture. So I would love everyone to see this film because it really challenges something in us. We've taken this film around the world now, and I've really seen people react.