An interview with Sofia Coppola
Filmmaker Sofia Coppola has a status as impressive as hard to believe. In the United States she ranks as the first lady of “Best Director” Oscar nominations: the first American woman ever nominated for an Academy Award for directing, an honour received for her 2003 film Lost in Translation, two more feature films, and a Golden Lion honorary award (conferred upon her at the 2010 Venice Film Festival for Somewhere) – Coppola’s talents are surpassing the art of moviemaking. Now she celebrates her skills as a curator as well.
From Mapplethorpe’s visually-exacting sexual explorations to his faultless floral studies (vaguely reminiscent of the Japanese aesthetic which passes through Lost in Translation), Coppola clearly reacts in her own way to selected lesser-known images by the controversial photographer who died of AIDS in 1989. She presents viewers with a body of work that evokes a vision less influenced by the undertow of what Mapplethorpe once labelled “smut raised to art”. In fact, by comparison, Coppola’s personal selection—extracted from around the potentially shocking and frighteningly beautiful photographic offerings (coined by Peter Conrad of The Observer “florid penises and penile flowers”)—presents an entirely different line of thought.
Coppola does not rediscover Robert Mapplethorpe. Instead, as implied by her new profession, she truly “selects” from him. Almost joyously, she rethinks Mapplethorpe, the “stylish Manhattan fetish-hipster”, as the multifaceted phenomenon he really was. Finally, her present-day look at Mapplethorpe is achieved by putting a face of her own design on the master’s images. At times her selection also evinces a group effort made possible with the help of former co-workers and friends of the artist such as Dimitri Levas, a man who began as Mapplethorpe’s image scout and prop supplier. However, one wonders—personal contact being supremely important to Mapplethorpe in his lifetime—had reality, time, and coincidence allowed Sofia Coppola and Robert Mapplethorpe to connect, would it have been possible for curator and photographer to find some artistic niche to creatively bond in? At the same time would it have been possible for Coppola’s winning and socially-astute “cinematic” humour to somehow alter Mapplethorpe’s pretended lack of one: his famously dark and sexually-charged inner grin, a mask of sorts which strangely covers his semi-Warholian aura, and his well-publicised, deathly serious gaze which shines brightest from behind his black-and-white images of nudes and flowers?
In any event, regarding Coppola’s debut, a suitable second title for the show would be The Curator’s Cut. What goes unnoticed at first is the fine line separating direction from selection, the all-uniting choice-making that casts and directs images by making, for example, hypothetical “love scenes” precede or follow hypothetical “fight scenes”. Imaginary or not, no overall visual script for the still images—dictating how photographs lead up to or away from each other—is actually visible here. In its place, viewers receive a gallery-savvy selection more design than cinematic storytelling. Yet the excitement of a film is present in other ways, and we do sense the likes of flat actors on the “screen” of the gallery wall.
Experienced film-buffs might read into Coppola’s image selection the kind of saccharine acridity that recalls the opening scenes of her film The Virgin Suicides. But the message is not, after all, the medium in this case. Ultimately, what on the surface of the selected photographs appears refined and tranquil—if also slightly scented with a passing knowledge of death and raised to newer levels of visual rapture through undeniably beautiful images of children, animals, and flowers—evidences one of Mapplethorpe’s most developed callings: his ability to infuse any object or person with a sense of classicism—from a shiny dead fish left on a newspaper to remarkably endowed men and women often the consenting victims of bondage spectacles, intermingled with what often appears in Coppola’s French show: the cherub-like child and innocuously “penile” exotic flower.
With an artist of Mapplethorpe’s calibre it seems difficult, if not ludicrous, to say whether his images are properly received or appreciated at this stage of the art-history game. All things considered, ferocious scandals and censorship issues of the type which plagued the travelling show The Perfect Moment have been (largely) relegated to the past. At heart, what Robert Mapplethorpe’s art represents is the love of and fascination with what one sees. His gaze is so real, so close to existence itself, and so much of his viewers’ own flesh and blood that any criticism instantly falls short of its intended purpose. Why should it not? One could just as easily be finding fault with the clouds racing by overhead or, for that matter, with the laws of gravity. On several counts, Mapplethorpe’s imagery is that natural, that essential.
Faced with such simple complexities (or overly-simple realities) it might be best to do what Coppola—the curator—does. She exhibits an unswerving belief in her own visions, feelings, and tastes, and, as if an artistic creature made of living-and-thinking glass, she effortlessly reflects another person’s view of life on the surface of her own. There is as much distance-making as private exploration at work. Also, there is a different and totally legitimate “approach” to art appreciation: enjoyment. If nothing else, Sofia Coppola’s curatorial debut emphasizes a refreshing truth about her subject. For appearing void of humour, Robert Mapplethorpe’s all-seeing and surely all-sensing gaze consistently dares viewers not to be amused.
Karl Johnson: Is this the first time you have worked as a curator? What was your initial reaction to the invitation to curate a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition—or did you choose this particular artist yourself?
Sofia Coppola: Thaddaeus Ropac asked me if I would curate the show, and I thought it would be interesting to look through Mapplethorpe’s archive. I’ve never done this before. But I knew, of course, that the gallery had different artists curate shows of Mapplethorpe’s work in the past.
KJ: As a filmmaker you most likely have a strong interest in still photography. Do you collect photography and perhaps developed knowledge of Mapplethorpe’s work in that way?
SC: Yes, I do collect. I started collecting photography when I was a teenager. My mom took me to art fairs and she would give me photos for Christmas. I love photography, and it taught me a lot that I used later when making films. For my first film, Virgin Suicides, I looked at Bill Owens and Joseph Zsabo, as well as at 1970s Playboy photography.
KJ: Mapplethorpe photographed many artists and personalities he knew personally. When Cindy Sherman curated the 2003 Eye to Eye show it was one friend reconsidering the work of another. With an artist like Mapplethorpe, the personal side always played a major role. How did you go about getting to know him, so to speak, before you curated the show?
SC: I looked through his photos with Dimitri, who was a friend of Mapplethorpe’s as well as his art director, and it was great to hear all the stories behind the photos. And he pointed out things to me I didn’t know about, like Mapplethorpe’s portraits of children.
KJ: Of course the most important topic of discussion is your selection, the photographs you chose to exhibit and why. Can you describe your concept and selection?
SC: I just chose what appealed to me first. I enjoyed picking the Mapplethorpe images that are less known, the images I didn’t really know about myself until now, like the photographs of children and horses.
KJ: Without calling Mapplethorpe a tragic or socially-remote figure, the final stages of his life somehow imply the deconstruction of a character formerly in the limelight. Do you see it this way, too—and perhaps as a situation reminiscent of Johnny Marco’s in your film Somewhere?
SC: No, I don’t think of Mapplethorpe in that way.
KJ: What struck so many people as scandalous about Mapplethorpe’s work in, say, the 1970s to 1990s, hardly disturbs the way that it did before. For one thing, we can discuss sexuality and pornographic intensity with more openness today. How important is the controversial “edge” of Mapplethorpe’s art for you as a curator? Do you think it still shocks?
SC: Yes, there are some images that are really hard to look even now. But I didn’t focus on those in the show. I wanted to look at another side of his work.
KJ: I find the idea of you directing your vision at Mapplethorpe’s work refreshing. Many major photographers have been handled so predictably in the art world, and a totally new outlook like yours can lead to genuine rediscoveries. Do you or your colleagues think that your work with Mapplethorpe’s art presents a new take on his material and meaning?
SC: I hope so. For the show I picked images I connected with. And when I saw books by other people who curated Mapplethorpe shows, it was interesting to see how his work has been handled from so many different angles.
KJ: Mapplethorpe’s art also offers a wide range of exceptional portraits of woman. Experts like Arthur C. Danto have mentioned them in connection with the exciting but unalike portraits of women by Garry Winogrand in Women Are Beautiful, a series that Mapplethorpe commented on. Do you give special attention to Mapplethorpe’s treatment of women in the exhibition?
SC: I didn’t really focus on that at all. But I have, of course, included some women. I really just chose the images that I liked, and that I thought could work together for a show. And, like I said already, I enjoyed most discovering the images that I didn’t know.
KJ: Now that you’ve had, so to speak, the curator’s experience, would you consider such work a special challenge for a film director—or are both activities somehow similar for you? What also comes to mind here is watching, for example, film director William Friedkin work as an opera director nowadays. Do you find it exciting to work outside your usual professional environment?
SC: I find anything you do creatively to be quite similar. For example, while I’m directing, I’m also editing, making decisions based on what I like—or else using my instincts. It was a great deal of fun for me to learn more about Mapplethorpe and, of course, to have access to his archives. And yes, I do enjoy doing things that I’ve never done before. That’s why I’m really looking forward to hanging the show. The truth is, I’ve always wanted to be an art director.
TEXT BY KARL E. JOHNSON
©picture: Robert Mapplethorpe, Katherine Cebrian, 1980
Courtesy, Thaddaeus Ropac