Portraits of the Artist

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Thanks to a new book about his young adulthood in Greenwich Village alongside famed rock ‘n’ roll poet Patti Smith, excitement is building again around the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer famed for his gritty images of New York City. But one need not leave Queens to get a small taste of what Mapplethorpe had to offer.

Long Island City’s Fisher Landau Art Center currently boasts five Mapplethorpes among the pieces on display in “We Are The World,” a selection of portraits owned by the organization.

The center was created in 1991 to house the art collection of Emily Fisher Landau, part of a wealthy real estate family who has spent nearly five decades collecting pieces.

Her family befriended Mapplethorpe in the mid-1980s.

“The ’80s were different,” said Nicholas Arbatsky, the center’s director. “Art wasn’t selling for a ton of money. Sometimes artists needed extra money, so he was commissioned to do some of the portraits of the family.”

As the exhibition’s title suggests, the Mapplethorpe photos are all portraits — one of Landau, one of her young grandson, one of an unidentified male nude, and two self portraits.

The photos of Mapplethorpe are perhaps the most telling. Spanning only eight years between 1980 and 1988, his appearance changes from an almost feral-looking retro street-tough in a leather jacket to a wizened, professorlike figure whose shock of wild hair has gone gray and whose eyes are wracked with care.

“It’s under 10 years between those two portraits,” Arbatsky. “Such a change. It’s so sad, but it’s such a striking photograph — both of them.”

But the exhibit also includes more than 60 other pieces from noteworthy artists like Andy Warhol, Matthew Barney, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Hujar. Fisher-Landau was actually inspired to hold the exhibition by a highly stylized portrait of the late Michael Jackson made by Gary Hume, though Arbatsky said the set of 12 Hujar shots became one of the anchors of the collection when he realized they fit perfectly on a single wall.

Hujar, like Mapplethorpe, was an influential photographer who died during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

“The fact that this fit here, we knew we had a show already,” he said.

The art center at 38-27 30th St., was a former parachute harness factory selected by Fisher Landau in 1989 to store her art collection because it was right across the East River and easily accessible from her Park Avenue home in Manhattan. The center, which includes about 1,500 pieces of art, remained open by appointment only until 2003, when a private foundation was created to oversee the collection. It is now open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

“We’re trying to make them more accessible and give a wider variety of the art she’s collected,” Arbatsky said. “We hope that rather than it being standoffish, that it is very approachab­le.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 6:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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