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The Unexamined Life


edited and designed by Mark Holborn, by Dimitri Levas, essay by Arthur C. Danto
Random House, 382 pp., $125.00


by Robert Mapplethorpe, essay by Edmund White
Random House, 128 pp., $100.00

Mapplethorpe: A Biography

by Patricia Morrisroe
Random House, 461 pp., $27.50

Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera

by Jack Fritscher Ph.D.
Hastings House, 316 pp., $24.95

Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe

by Arthur C. Danto
University of California Press, 194 pp., $24.95

Robert Mapplethorpe’s work is difficult to see, which is not the same thing as saying it is difficult to look at. It is certainly not difficult to view; in the six and a half years that have elapsed since Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS at the age of forty-two, it has gotten much more diffusion and publicity than it ever did during his life. But that publicity is itself one of the major reasons his work is now so difficult to see. A tangled foliage of appended context, of headlines, slogans, editorials, legal and moral and political judgments, has arisen to obstruct the sight. During his life, Mapplethorpe’s photographs were judged, for better or worse, on their own merits. Since his death, or more specifically since four months so after his death, when a series of events shrouded his work in controversy and publicity, his photographs have become symbols or symptoms, even for their admirers.

Mapplethorpe went to his grave an esteemed photographer, famous in the art world if not widely known outside it, lightly but not uncomfortably notorious for his depictions of sado-masochistic practices. The Perfect Moment, a traveling retrospective of his work, had at the time of his death, on March 9, 1989, been circulating for four months. It might then have been expected that the exhibit and its catalog would constitute his principal public memorial, even if scholars would produce the eventual monographs and perhaps a biography would appear somewhere down the road. But then the landscape changed entirely. Fearing an outcry, the director of the Corcoran Gallery, the show’s venue in Washington, D. C., canceled its appearance two weeks before the opening on July 1. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, destroyed a copy of its catalog on the Senate floor. The following April, after having been shown without incident in Hartford and Berkeley. The Perfect Moment was closed by the police in Cincinnati, and the sponsoring museum and its director were indicted for pandering obscenity and child pornography. By then, Mapplethorpe had become known to everyone within range of a television set, although less as an artist than as a shibboleth.

The fruits of this unintended surge of fame are evidenced in various ways by the current harvest of books about him. Mapplethorpe, published in 1992, a collection of his black-and-white photographs much more lavish than the exhibit catalog, has been succeeded by Altars, an equally sumptuous if necessarily thinner compilation of his less profuse work in color, and the former’s critical essay, by Arthur Danto, has been published as a separate book, Playing with the Edge. Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe, meanwhile, is the authorized biography and a point of entry for the curious and the perplexed. And Jack Fritscher’s Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera is a personal memoir, a polemic, and several other things besides.

The great differences among these books, at least among the three texts, begin to suggest the width of the divide across which Mapplethorpe’s name has been flung. If Mapplethorpe were alive and on trial, Danto would be an expert witness for the defense, Morrisroe a journalist covering the case for a glossy if sensational publication, and Fritscher an opinionated acquaintance holding forth on the courthouse steps day after day for anyone who would listen. What the three books share is the sense that Mapplethorpe is on trial. Even Danto, who sets out to treat his subject on purely artistic grounds, cannot avoid sounding as if he were addressing a jury.

The case is fairly straightforward. Mapplethorpe stands accused of having represented in his work subjects considered offensive by a portion of the population. No one would deny this, least of all Mapplethorpe himself. He was no propagandist, though; he was not moved by a need to make viewers confront his subjects in the name of realism, or acknowledge them in the name of tolerance. He was an aesthete, who saw beauty in his subjects and sought to make this beauty manifest. Many of his opponents would like to eliminate from the world those subjects of his that offend them, homosexuality in general and sadomasochism in particular, and many more are dismayed by the idea that these could be considered fit subjects for art.

However, since the city of Cincinnati lost its case against the sponsors of The Perfect Moment thanks in part to a lineup of critics and other artworld professionals who convinced a largely working-class jury that Mapplethorpe was no mere pornographer, the opposition’s rhetoric has ceased to emphasize definitions of art. It is perhaps backhanded recognition of Mapplethorpe’s devout aestheticism that has caused him posthumously to become a symbol for a campaign against government funding of the arts that sometimes sounds like the usual taxpayer disgruntlement and often sounds like a campaign against art itself. “Mapplethorpe” has thus become a synecdoche, standing in some minds for freedom of expression and in others for a bewildering elitist contempt for prevailing standards of taste. He makes an odd candidate on both counts.

Also contributing to the difficulty of seeing Mapplethorpe and his work free from the interference of slogan and judgment is the fact that his career appears almost absurdly foreshortened. This is partly owing to his having died young, obviously; a short life can seem like a straight line, denied the contours and complexities that time brings into relief. But Mapplethorpe’s work is so continuous from one end of his career to the other that he might appear to have sprung into being one day around 1970, his aesthetics and preoccupations fully formed. This was in fact nearly the case. Even without the bizarre, bedeviled weight of his posthumous fame, his life’s work might look like a single action rather than a forking path of possibilities.

His actual beginnings were more messy and painful. He was born in 1946 in Floral Park, Queens, to parents of Irish and English extraction who had recently ascended to the lower middle class. Although his father was himself an amateur photographer, he discouraged his second son’s artistic inclinations, evident early on, and propounded a family doctrine of muscularity, obedience, and Catholicism. Robert did his best to comply, apparently contorting himself in the process, so that in high school he joined a macho Catholic fraternity called the Columbian Squires, and in college, at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he underwent hazing to enter the ROTC honor society, the Pershing Rifles. Morrisroe supplies a photograph of him in the uniform of this latter outfit; he looks dazed, rabbity, unsteady, his clothes somehow too big and too small at once.

He extricated himself from this posture with assistance from the climate of the early hippie era, and within a short time was wearing other kinds of fancy dress, such as capes. Shortly afterward he met Patti Smith, a strange young woman from South Jersey, given to visions, uncomfortable with her gender, in the early stages of assembling a complex personal mythology from elements of the lives of rock stars, film stars, and dead French poets. The two immediately recognized each other as kin, and the friendship was to become perhaps the most profound of Mapplethorpe’s life. They lived together for a few years in fleabag hotels and ratty lofts, working at barely remunerative bookstore jobs, cadging drinks at Max’s Kansas City, and tentatively making art.

Smith’s work began as doodles that grew text that evolved into poems, which were rhythmic and lent themselves well to public performance, for which she proved to have a particular gift. Mapplethorpe, for his part, was dabbling at collages and assemblages in a desultory sort of way. Somewhere along the line he recognized his homosexuality, and he threw himself into the gestures and accoutrements of leather-bar culture. His collages began to feature pictures clipped from gay porn magazines, and the already fetishistic character of his assemblages was only slightly redirected, pieces of clothing and bondage trappings joining a repertory that continued to run heavily to Catholic and satanic imagery.

In 1970, a friend of Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s named Sandy Daley made a short film, Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, that functioned as something of a rite of passage. More importantly, she gave him her Polaroid camera. Mapplethorpe appears to have almost instantly found his calling. The subjects and basic approach he adopted in his photography at that time would remain constant for the remainder of his life. From the very beginning, this involved simple, hard images posed against neutral backgrounds: portraits, self-portraits, flowers, figure studies, and bondage tableaux. Only a protracted study of artificial lighting lay in the future. He sublimated his bricolage into the process, building frames for his pictures and assembling triptychs using photographs and mirrors.

He also began to get interested in the history of photography, even at that late date a relatively scorned subject, and he was assisted in this pursuit by John McKendry, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, who opened the museum’s archives to his perusal. McKendry, a fascinating and rather tragic figure who was shortly to die from cirrhosis caused by multiple substance abuse, also gave Mapplethorpe a new and better Polaroid camera. Mapplethorpe’s extraordinary success at finding angels to help him construct his career reached its apex when he met Samuel Wagstaff, a collector and heir who had lately been a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts and before that at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. Their relationship was to be an enduring one. Wagstaff bought Mapplethorpe a loft on Bond Street in NoHo, and, later, a Hasselblad. Mapplethorpe for his part encouraged Wagstaff to begin collecting photographs; the result was one of the world’s great collections.

In 1977, Mapplethorpe mounted two shows to open simultaneously. The one uptown at the Holly Solomon Gallery featured portraits and studies of flowers; the one downtown at the Kitchen contained sex pictures. The advertisement paired two photos of Mapplethorpe’s hand writing the word “Pictures.” On the left the hand is emerging from a striped dress shirt, the wrist encircled by a Cartier watch; on the right it is clad in a black leather fingerless glove and the wrist is cinched by a heavy, toothed-metal bracelet. The Kitchen show was the first public exhibition of the sort of photographs that were to cause the uproar after his death. The bulk of his pictures of sadomasochist displays were in fact taken around this time, in the black-leather era of the late 1970s. Not long after, Mapplethorpe met the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon and photographed her in various attitudes and costumes, the work collected in 1983 in his first book, Lady, Lisa Lyon. Then he began photographing black men, in whom he was becoming increasingly interested sexually, as well as formally, with regard to body structure and the effects of light on skin tones.

Mapplethorpe began to exhibit symptoms of AIDS at an undefined point in the mid-1980s. Sam Wagstaff, with whom he was no longer sexually involved but who remained both mentor and more than a bit of a father to him, died of AIDS in 1987. Toward the end, Mapplethorpe increasingly shot still lifes, primarily of classical statuary, in part because he was mesmerized by their perfection and in part because he was rapidly losing mobility. He reached the summit of his ambitions with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in July, 1988. He attended the opening in a wheelchair and was afterward devastated by paparazzi photographs that showed him looking frail and several decades older than his chronological age. He predeceased his mother by less than three months and his ashes were later buried in her coffin—but his father refused to allow his name to be engraved on the headstone.

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