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There are no paintings on the walls at the Corcoran’s newest exhibition. There’s no sculptures or illustrations. No projections or videos. There are a handful of photographs, two of them hang from the ceiling like tapestries while the others are tucked away in glass cases. They’re startling images, not only because they command all the attention in the almost blank rooms, but because they tell disparate stories that are intrinsically linked. One of them is Robert Mapplethorpe’s soft and intimate “Embrace” and the other is a photo of the Corcoran taken in 1989. Crowds surround the building holding signs as Mapplethorpe’s image is projected onto the facade.

The Corcoran’s newest exhibition doesn’t have much art, because it’s about the lack of art. 6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition tackles what is arguably the biggest blunder in the Corcoran’s history, their embarrassing cancelation of Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment show. Featuring memos, press releases, letters, development reports, meeting minutes, newspaper clippings and notes straight from Congress, the exhibition is a wonderland of paperwork. Delicately arranged in glass cases, the story of the making (and unmaking) of the exhibition comes together between the lines of rage filled letters and clinical interoffice memos.

It’s a story about art, politics, funding, ethics, obscenity and, most importantly, bureaucracy. The first thing to hit you when you walk into the exhibition, before you see the delicate “Embrace” or the frenzy of the protest photo, is one small and lonely glass case. The center of the room is dedicated entirely to the press release the Corcoran issued on June 13, 1989 featuring the first official news that they were cancelling Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment show. Everything to the left of that case tells the story up to that point. It includes orders for the show catalogue, the announcement of Christina Orr-Cahall’s new position as director and CEO of the museum and gallery plans that explain how Mapplethorpe’s pieces were supposed to be hung.

It also slowly starts to illustrate the controversies that came to a head with the cancelling of the exhibition. There’s a note from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (which showed The Perfect Moment in 1988), that includes verbiage the Corcoran could use with museum guests if they became upset by the sexual imagery in the exhibition. There are letters from lawyers diving into D.C.’s obscenity laws. The culmination of the pushback is a letter from Congress that questions the use of funds from the National Endowment of the Arts and states, “We realize that the interpretation of art is a subjective evaluation, but there is a very clear and unambiguous line that exists between what can be classified as art and what must be called morally reprehensible trash.”

Everything to the right of the press release (which claims the Corcoran cancelled the exhibition in an attempt to remain “apolitical,” which manages to sound even more baffling in 2019), details the fallout. There are letters from students, professors and members of the museum alike criticizing the cancellation. An artist wrote the Corcoran out of their will while others canceled their future exhibitions. Students made t-shirts with slogans like, “Freedom for the Creative Mind” and held signs that said “Free the penis.” If the left side of the exhibition takes you behind the scenes of cool prickly bureaucracy, the right side of the exhibition is an explosion of emotions. A celebration of anger.

On one wall of the exhibition, curator Maddy Henkin writes, “Because The Perfect Moment never opened at the Corcoran, it also never closed.” 30 years after the cancellation, the internal battles, the public protests and the never ending conversations, the Corcoran is laying all of their cards on the table. And it’s a fascinating pile of cards. A haunting pile of cards. An infuriating pile of cards. The Perfect Moment still hasn’t closed. This is one part of its infinite history.

6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Robert Mapplethorpe is on display at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design from June 14 – October 6, 2019.

Featured image: Protest of the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, June 30, 1989, Washington, DC. © Frank Herrera

Part of the BYT Art Census 2019 series

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