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.
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.
Sharing a spread with this picture is “Richard, N.Y.C., 1978,” which is likewise calculated to shred all the niceties of critical palaver. It shows a penis and testicles lashed cruciform to a board, no more and no less. The viewer here is simultaneously pushed into outer darkness and forced to experience vicarious pain, a palliative middle distance being only marginally achievable by dryly considering the relative textures of wood, metal, cord, pubic hair, and stretched, blood-engorged, capillary-striated skin. Good luck.
Here as elsewhere, it is difficult to assess just how Mapplethorpe intends his title to be taken. Danto founds his case for Mapplethorpe on the principle of consent—that Mapplethorpe was not a voyeur like Gary Winogrand or a stalker (his word) like Cartier-Bresson or a betrayer of confidences like Diane Arbus. This is true enough; all his published pictures feature fully informed models who signed releases, and all that they depict was carefully staged (they are not photographs of sex, but of sexual displays). But Danto cites Winogrand’s kamikaze shots of nameless women on the street as products of a predatory tactic that is tantamount to rape-by-lens (neglecting to mention that Winogrand operated identically when photographing society people, ranchers, politicians, writers, cars, lampposts, parking lots), and contrasts their heartless anonymity with Mapplethorpe’s respect for his subjects as demonstrated by his titles:
Even when all we are shown is a nude torso, cropped, like that of Lydia Cheng, at the knee and neck, so that the body looks altogether impersonal, it is given an identity and an owner: it is the body of a particular woman who consented to be shown nude.
Perhaps this is so, although it is disconcerting that of all the many pictures he took of Lydia Cheng, not one shows her face (according to Morrisroe, he thought her Asian facial features would be distracting). When it comes to his pictures of individual precincts of male anatomy, the message seems more deliberately mixed. A penis can be simply “Cock,” or it can be “Lou” (according credit to its namesake for the hair-raising feat of inserting his little finger past the first knuckle into his urethra), or it can be “Mark Stevens” (a celebrity phallus). Or it can be “Richard,” which seems to mean (besides any considerations of the fact that Richard might not want his face and his tortured member to appear in the same shot, although he is proud of it) that Richard is equivalent to his trussed penis, that his spirit resides within it, that he is thereby exceptional among the endless parade of nameless meat in the back room.
There is cruelty in this assignment, and there is humor, too. Mapplethorpe is seldom given credit for being funny, but the self-parody of “Egg-plant, 1985,” in which that dark vegetable is posed in chiaroscuro, whipped by the shadows of a venetian blind, is hard to miss. And “Man in Polyester Suit, 1980” (an instance in which anonymity was granted at the urgent request of the model, whose name Morrisroe helpfully supplies) is not simply a portrait of a massive penis protruding from an open fly; it is also—in its carefully neutral lighting and its subject’s artificial pose, quarter-angled, arms bent just slightly—a parody of men’s fashion photography of the Sears catalog school. Mapplethorpe’s humor is perhaps also evident in his pictures of flowers. When his flowers are not resembling “body parts,” in his phrase, they are strident, overbearing art objects, as if their own beauty had been deemed insufficient and some industrial order of beauty imposed on them.
On the whole, Mapplethorpe’s quest for perfection serves him best when it steers him away from beauty. His sex pictures include some stunningly lit anatomical features and regions and some strikingly plastic poses, but most of the strongest photographs among them are singularly unbeautiful, even allowing for differences of taste. Their harshness, which seems so jarringly at odds with Mapplethorpe’s habitual refinement and elegance, demands explanation. The key is provided by the notion named by Barthes and taken up as the title of that circulating retrospective. It is “the perfect moment” that is the quarry of these pictures—not the point of orgasm, which the deliberately posed subjects of the pictures may or may not be about to experience, but an analogous feeling occurring within the photographer, in his function as photographer. This is an ocular and cerebral version of sex, requiring its objects to be visually aggressive but physically out of reach, the feeling Mapplethorpe got from pornography as a teenager and attempted to reproduce all his life. Harsh lighting, squalid settings, even imperfect bodies are erogenously specific, not only as sadomasochist totems but because they represent the contrary of Mapplethorpe’s taste.
The viewer is doubly a voyeur, not only looking at the scene depicted but also witnessing Mapplethorpe’s ambivalent role in the proceedings. Mapplethorpe’s attraction to what he shows hinges on the danger emanating from the scene, which might be a pantomime danger in physical terms but represents a real threat to the delicate side of his personality. Like the macho laws enforced in his youth by all males beginning with his father and brother, sadomasochism laughs at his frailty, his sensitivity, his unerring good taste—he will have to conform to its requirement of toughness or be destroyed. In photographing sadomasochist displays he is submitting to the S&M aesthetic against his own aesthetic inclinations, and he wants to be seen thus submitting himself, being in a sense destroyed.
But just as no sadist can help also being a masochist, and vice versa, so these pictures are two-bladed knives. Mapplethorpe wants both to thrust the scene upon a viewer as cultivated as himself and make that viewer submit, and to expose the scene to a viewer tougher than himself and have that viewer, in turn, judge and ideally condemn Mapplethorpe’s own shortcomings in its light. The pictures do not show sex as much as they enact it, locating the act in the exchange between the photographer and whoever looks at his work. The viewer is pressed into service as proxy partner, top and bottom at once. The reactions of Jesse Helms and his ilk would no doubt have given Mapplethorpe satisfaction—their horror only proves that he succeeded in getting them into bed with him. But no one, at least nowadays, can fail to react strongly to these pictures. Everyone who gives them more than a glance, like it or not, is drawn in by them, and the circularity of the exchange is so polished and smooth it exemplifies Mapplethorpe’s highest formal standards.
When he set about depicting easily understandable beauty, however, he tended to glaze it, in fact to beautify it. Like his flowers, his male nudes are astounding physical specimens. In their case, too, he exerted himself so much in showing them to advantage that it might seem as if he were frustrated being merely their photographer and wished to be their maker as well. The critic Peter Schjeldahl, in a review reprinted in his book 7 Days Columns, 1988–1990, locates the exact center of Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic:
Hunger craves union; taste demands distance. Mapplethorpe pushes these opposed terms to excruciating extremes, creating a magnetic field. His work is not about gratification, either sexual or aesthetic. Elegance spoils it as pornography, and avidity wrecks it as fashion. It is about a strenuously maintained state of wanting.
There is no denying that this tension between hunger and taste in Mapplethorpe engendered beautiful objects. The skin tones are lush, deep, rich, almost surreally tangible, conveying the precise degree of density and resistance between skin and bone. He makes luxurious compositions of whole or segmented bodies set against teasingly contrasted backdrops. Even the dullest celebrities are rendered mysterious and profound in his portraits by the unyielding blackness or tender dove-gray in which he shrouded them. But all of this is craft, skill, artfulness rather than art. Too often Mapplethorpe’s hunger chooses the subject (which in the case of celebrities is celebrity itself), and then his taste sanctifies it. Only when his desire out-distances or befuddles or subverts his taste is he able to make a picture that is more than a beautiful vessel.
His yearning to escape from his internal knots is most poignantly visible in his self-portraits. In his 1983 masquerade as a knife-wielding street tough he looks so feeble as to evoke protective feelings in viewers; he seems more fierce in his 1980 drag pictures. He is an elegant and faintly dangerous roué wearing dinner clothes in 1986, and a ridiculous fop in white tie holding a submachine gun and posed under a pentagram in 1983. It is as the devil, though, that he is most at ease with his shortcomings. “Satan” or “the devil” was for Mapplethorpe what it is for many ex-Catholics, a name and a rather dashing figure with which to clothe a principle, that of the inversion of one’s moral indenture. He made a great deal of it, was reportedly given to uttering “Do it for Satan” as a kind of sexual toast, and fooled with satanic imagery from late adolescence onward. He makes an impetuous young sprite wearing horns as late as 1985, and a glowering, remote dweller of darkness clutching a skull-headed cane in his last self-portrait, from 1988, when he knew that death was at hand. But it is in the 1978 picture of himself wearing leather chaps and vest, fingering a bullwhip protruding from his anus, that he came closest to manifesting his own ideal. The picture is gleeful; he has managed to embody menace and joke-menace in a single gesture, to shock the spectator and to laugh at himself simultaneously.
Mapplethorpe’s work rebuffs piety, disdains analysis, sneers at understanding, snarls at interpretation, demands silent esteem, which some of it deserves. The cloud of contention that currently hovers over his work obscures its weaknesses and its strengths alike. Eventually the front will pass, and in the clearing many of his photographs will probably appear most notable as artifacts of the complicated and fascinating time in which they were made, certainly a nobler fate than to wind up as mere décor, which is another possibility for them. Besides the portraits of Patti Smith, the pictures most likely to remain standing are the very ones that set off the uproar, the darkest, most difficult of the sex pictures. It is no accident that those two areas of exception should have provided his strongest work.
Right now the sex pictures seem to present mainstream culture with an unscalable wall. Some of them will not be assimilable for a long time, but probably fewer will resist assimilation than anyone thinks at the moment. As unlikely as it might seem, they are even now creating the climate for their eventual acceptance, or if not acceptance then at least a blasé unconcern. After all, cultural taboos have in the past century tended to collapse not long after a furious battle for their maintenance was apparently won, since the resulting exposure and publicity inoculated the population against any possible shock, and eventually eroded fear.
Soon “Joe, N.Y.C., 1978,” a cartoon sea creature in his black rubber body suit, enema hose sticking out of the mask, will not look out of place in the boardroom that also displays a Hans Bellmer doll; the bullwhip self-portrait will fit nicely into the paneled library alongside etchings by Félicien Rops. There will always be people who will claim that morals are somehow at stake, as well as advocates of bland tolerance and solemn universality, all of them in their diverse ways trying to hose down art, but they will inevitably be bested in this task by the culture’s boundless capacity for indifferent absorption. This leveling process might deflate the shock factor of Mapplethorpe’s darkest pictures, but then it will have the benefit of allowing most people to look at them, rather than look away. The initial shock merely blinds, but the disturbance that comes with looking is rather more substantial.