NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, [photographs taken with Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera, acquired at a distance of approximately 618,000 miles, using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 728 nanometers], May 27, 2015 

Mapplethorpe’s “Kitchen Sink”

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One great aspect of LACMA’s “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium” is the exhibition of early sculptural work, altars and artifacts that most people familiar with his photographs have never seen in three dimensions. When he switched his focus to photography in the early 1970s, after a brief go at jewelry design, the sculptural work found its way into custom frame design. 

Mapplethorpe understood the limitations of art photography, both curatorial and financial. Using frames to create a specific objects around photographs increased interest and potential value in a market where photographs were worth very little. The exhibit has a good number of these works, the most significant examples are Tie Rack and Untitled (Nude with Spool).

“Kitchen Sink” from 1975 is a Mapplethorpe photograph I had never seen before and would never guess its creator if you had shown it to me. I don’t see mention of it in the catalog. On the web, seen flat, it’s not very remarkable.

In the realm of Mapplethorpe still life, it’s an outlier. Dirty dishes in a 1970s New York City kitchen isn’t Mapplethorpe content. From Greek busts to other studio compositions, most famously flowers, his still life always gravitates towards formalism. As with nudes and body parts, Mapplethorpe transformed what he found in New York clubs and streets with meticulous control in the studio. His formalism is not only in the composition but lighting. The bullwhip blocks the sunshine only when the lighting is just right.

“Kitchen Sink” seems to be shot on 35mm versus Polaroid 100 or later work in medium format. Looking at the faucet’s shadow (large jpeg of above), it appears this photograph was made using an overhead light, probably an existing light in the kitchen. The print seems to have a water stain or darkroom mishap, unclear if that happened before or after it went into the frame. Compare it to another work from 1975, a triptych called “Instant Coffee.” It has the same domestic content as "Kitchen Sink,” but is highly formal, using a gingham tablecloth, sugar cubes and spoon in multiple arrangements.

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Looking at the dishes, it’s possible they are arranged. Humble subject matter does not exclude obsessiveness, going back to at least Edward Weston’s efforts to get the perfect exposure of his toilet (Excusado, 1925). Do the two sponges indicate something? The fork seems smaller than adult sized, maybe a salad fork? Perhaps there’s a contact sheet in the archive showing different arrangements.

If the “Kitchen Sink” photograph feels too loose to be a Mapplethorpe, the frame is the opposite. Like the X and Y Portfolio boxes, Kitchen Sink’s frame is carefully designed and executed.

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The frame also has a pop quality of Oldenburg or Lichtenstein’s Portable Radio. Wall text indicated that Mapplethorpe made some of the custom frames himself, others he had fabricated; no indication if “Kitchen Sink” is one of these.

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The frame is not formica, but that’s the impression it gives. The materials listed are cardboard and metal. In our granite countertop era, the shape and materials are no longer common in kitchens, but it’s referencing a 1950-60s countertop or kitchen table. My first impression of the design was pure Americana, a table at a diner with overstuffed booth seating.

The lighting at the exhibit was low, the wall paint color a muted grey with a hint of brown perhaps, which gave the leather/fetish work and portraits more elegance and mystery. You can see in my photos the lighting creates distracting reflections from the (presumably) aluminum border around the frame. 

Seen from the side, you can see how 1920s Bauhaus form and materials influenced consumer furniture in 1950s United States. From this perspective, Mapplethorpe’s Bézier curve is more commonly found in our pockets than in our kitchens. 

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