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The Unexamined Life

It was a short life and a rather unexamined one, its progress in its last two decades marked off by exhibitions and publications and filled out by gossip. Patricia Morrisroe, whom Mapplethorpe authorized as his biographer at her request seven months before his death, tells the story as an apparently impartial journalist with a nose for good copy. In practice, this means that her book is rather unsympathetic. She undoubtedly did not set out to expose or attack her subject, but on the other hand she has an instinct for highlighting every shred of conflict in her material. The tone is set, if you are one of those who crack open a biography and immediately make for the photo insert, by a portrait of a cherubic Robert at perhaps two years of age that is captioned:

Robert Mapplethorpe revolted against everything his parents represented. Here he poses for Harry’s camera—one of the few times father and son ever saw eye to eye.

She is constantly editorializing, constantly pitting her subject against others, constantly seeking everyone’s basest motives. Her narrative emphasizes foreshadowing and simple irony, boiling her subject down to a consistent set of tics and foibles. She pounces on his mother’s recollection that Mapplethorpe as a young boy killed his pet turtle by impaling it on his finger, and, rather more seriously, on the rumor that he continued to engage in unprotected sex after he knew he was infected with the AIDS virus—that, in fact, he was seeking revenge on black men, believing that a black man had infected him. And she does more than just pass along the report, writing: “He approached his task like an avenging angel, picking up one black man after another with offers of cocaine, then baiting them with the word ‘nigger.’ ”

Mapplethorpe was of course no paragon. The fact that he did require his African-American lovers to permit themselves to be called “nigger” is confirmed by Jack Fritscher, an exseminarian who commissioned Mapplethorpe to shoot a cover for the gay S&M magazine Drummer and was for a time his West Coast paramour. Fritscher is probably a reliable witness; he seems too obsessive to have deception in mind. His book is physically exhausting to read, consisting for the most part of lapidary pronouncements hammered out in one-or two-sentence paragraphs, arbitrarily organized and repeated copiously. (So repetitive is his book that its photo insert twice includes a portrait of Mapplethorpe by the New Orleans photographer George Dureau, albeit with different croppings and captions.) He regularly inventories his cherished ideas, some shrewd, some obvious, some addled, one of them being the irony of Mapplethorpe’s censure at the hands of “Republican southern religionists” with whom he shared many beliefs about the status of blacks, women, and indeed gays.

Mapplethorpe emerges from Fritscher’s rant barely more attractive than from Morrisroe’s exposé—Fritscher’s Mapplethorpe has a certain rough intimacy, but Morrisroe’s version, against all odds, retains the shadow of a frail, sensitive, lost boy somewhere within. Perhaps Mapplethorpe was grasping, vulgar, deceitful, disloyal, inconsiderate, exploitative, shallow, calculating, vain, cruel, racist, anti-Semitic, and so on, but then, too, perhaps his biographer and his memorialist are complying with current convention, which prescribes brutal candor rather than reverence in treating the recent dead. This stricture might actually be a new spin on the denial of death, particularly in regard to AIDS; piety entombs its objects, but malicious gossip does tend to keep them in the room. The charges beg an answer—the mirror they hold up is maybe meant less to reflect a face than to pick up a faint fog of breath.

In any event, Mapplethorpe lives on in his photographs, which articulate more of his complicated personality than either book can begin to suggest. He was a perfectionist who exercised complete control over his images, so that the vast majority of his pictures were taken in austere studio settings where no element of chance was permitted, and yet he undertook his apprenticeship in this mode using Polaroid cameras and natural light. Nearly all his photographs are of faces, bodies, or their analogues—statues, anthropomorphized flora—but most of them present their subjects architecturally. He is most famous for depicting erotica, or at least its signs, symbols, and byproducts, but his depiction is invariably ice-cold. He emerged from the social and artistic fringe to present himself as an exemplar of a nearly forgotten classicism, and he upset the art world less by his graphically sexual subject matter than by his closure, his symmetry, his deliberateness, his polish—his frank pursuit of beauty. He may be denounced today as a symptom of rampant moral relativism, but he was on his own terms an absolutist.

And he was or became perhaps the most famously homosexual artist of all time—unlike any of his predecessors, including George Platt Lynes and Andy Warhol, he never bothered with code or camp, except to poke fun at the notion with his penile orchids and scrotum-like grapes.

Nevertheless, his deepest, sexiest, most emotional photographs are of women, or rather of one woman, Patti Smith. In Mapplethorpe’s work as in his life, Smith is the exception that tests the rule. She is the exception, too, in Morrisroe’s biography, virtually the only party who emerges intact, and she seems suffused with a certain saintly aura even in the account of the forthrightly misogynous Fritscher.

In their youth Smith was Mapplethorpe’s twin, mother, protector, lover until he abruptly announced that he was gay, collaborator until she retired from public life to get married and have children. In the meantime her poems had evolved into songs, her readings had become concerts, and she had become a rock star. Mapplethorpe financed the annual Rimbaud’s birthday events that launched her career, financed her first single, and took the jacket photographs for all but one of her albums. His photographs of her are diverse, and all of them are compelling. While the principle of beauty in his other portraits and figure studies—including those of women, like Lisa Lyon and Lydia Cheng—is contingent on ideal forms and cultivated physiques, Smith’s beauty includes the sum of her imperfections. Her scrawniness, coltishness, vulnerability that is only heightened when she adopts a tough pose, her asymmetry and blemishes all contribute to a beauty that is not separable from the personality they enclose. The photographs of her in Mapplethorpe’s corpus, including such a late one as the 1987 cover shot for her comeback album, Dream of Life—a sorrowful portrait which Fritscher aptly terms a picture of the artist’s “soon-to-be widow”—point out the road that Mapplethorpe chose not to take, in art as in life.

The path he did choose led to the hard, impregnable, stainless surface. “Beauty” is actually an equivocal notion in Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic. “I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect,” he told an interviewer in 1982, but then he once told Smith, “I’m not after beauty, I’m after perfection, and they’re not always the same.” This was after all the man who in his late phase photographed reproductions of classical statues because the originals tended to be chipped or spotted. He did not arrive at what he took to be perfection overnight, even though the impulse is detectable from the beginning of his career. The Polaroids show him at his most spontaneous: the earliest photo in Mapplethorpe, a self-portrait, is actually blurred (he is obviously holding the camera with outstretched arms), and a couple more are parodies of shoddy 1950s studio porn, with a visible electrical outlet and a zebra-pattern backdrop that retains its creases. The three-panel “Head Stand, 1974” is the earliest manifestation of what will become a trademark motif—the headless and limbless torso converted into a sort of Edward Weston pepper—but not only is it taken with natural light, it is posed against drywall with conspicuous spackling.

His quest of perfection really begins its ascent with his acquisition of the Hasselblad, in 1976, although it is prepared for by the large-format Polaroids of the previous year or so. Roland Barthes, an early admirer, saw it clearly. Discussing in Camera Lucida (1980) the striking self-portrait of 1975, in which Mapplethorpe sprawls grinning into the frame with arm outstretched, he writes:

the photographer has caught the boy’s hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimeters more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire.

This half-sentence, written when Barthes was likely to know of Mapplethorpe’s work only the thirteen reproductions that appeared in the French journal Creatis in 1978 (including some notorious ones that were not to be published in the United States for another decade) virtually summarizes his subsequent career.

Barthes’s nuanced use of the word “divined” (not possessing the original, I can only guess he wrote diviné) alludes to the fact that the position of the hand in question is precisely calibrated not only for abandonment, but also—and Barthes isn’t sure whether this is intentional or not—for crucifixion. Pleasure and sacrifice are of course entwined in Mapplethorpe’s conception. Arthur Danto rightly notes that while numerous critics have referred to Mapplethorpe’s “Catholic” aesthetic with regard to his love of symmetry (and he himself often talked of “making altars”), such construction is merely generally sacerdotal. “What is finally Catholic is the abiding mystery of spirit and flesh,” Danto writes, not putting too fine a point on it. What he means is that the most profoundly Catholic images are those of sadomasochistic ritual.

The infamous “X Portfolio” is represented in Mapplethorpe by a selection marked off by red pages of light card stock (so that, perhaps, cautious parents can tape them shut). “Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977,” which was famously characterized at the Cincinnati trial as a “figure study,” and shows a leather-hooded man urinating into the open mouth of another man, evokes for Danto the classical theme of “Roman charity” (the daughter offering her breast to her shackled and starving father). It might more simply be said to refer to holy communion: the standing donor, half-extending his arm, stands over the supplicant, who kneels and presents his upturned face, eyes reverently closed. The two are surrounded by darkness but streaked with a light that comes from above. Whatever one’s visceral or acculturated reaction to the act depicted, there is no denying that the picture conveys a hush, a powerfully concentrated peace that overrides the menace of the leather hood and the sordidness of the grimy bunker.

Other pictures are less comforting. Some bristle with the hardware of chains and straps and ropes and pulleys, and refer the viewer to a thousand gruesome fifteenth-and sixteenth-century panels of saints’ martyrdoms as well as, in their head-on and deliberately ugly lighting, to the artless brutality of photographs in true-crime magazines. “Helmut and Brooks, N.Y.C., 1978,” the “fisting” picture that prompted an expert witness in Cincinnati to natter about “the centrality of the forearm,” is a sculptural enigma that entirely excludes the viewer, any viewer. After you have figured out what is going on, you are immediately expelled by the monstrous arm and buttocks that devour all space. It is not a privileged display, not a window onto anything; it is an aggressive, even hostile declaration of limits. They are breaching theirs; you are confined to your bubble.

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