Eye Witness

Robert Mapplethorpe: Fire and Light

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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The hypnotic aura of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs triumphs over petty public morality

ON MARCH 9th, 1989, when Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 42 in Boston, Massachusetts, he was already a major public figure, equal parts famous and notorious. Counted in the league of artists such as Andy Warhol, who he looked up to as a role model even as he competed against him as a rival, Mapplethorpe was one of the most distinctive photographers of his generation. Born in 1947, he not only brought to photography the respectability it lacked in the art world, especially among collectors, critics and curators, but also lent a brutal edge to the medium that was seldom witnessed before his emergence in the 1970s and 80s.

Towards the end of his life, Mapplethorpe’s prints were shown by premium galleries and museums across the United States—they also sold for impressive prices. His last retrospective, at the Whitney Museum in 1988, was attended by luminaries of modern art such as Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, Francesco Clemente, Robert Rauschenberg, among others. But soon after his death, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC had to cancel a show of his work, fearing public outrage at the radical imagery that was the signature of his idiom. When the exhibition travelled to Cincinnati, the Contemporary Arts Center and its director were both put on trial. However, even though the jury was in agreement about the pornographic appeal of Mapplethorpe’s work, it couldn’t deny that his creations were indeed what we call ‘art’. The hypnotic aura of his work triumphed over petty public morality.

Thirty years since his death, Mapplethorpe’s legacy rests on firm ground, but his work still retains a remarkable freshness— it strikes us with almost the same power as it did his contemporaries during his lifetime, shocking and offending viewers all around. Mapplethorpe, a new biopic by Ondi Timoner, with Matt Smith playing the artist, released earlier this month in the US. And although it doesn’t shy away from confronting the radical leaps made by Mapplethorpe during his relatively brief career, critics say it fails to convey the spirit of his abrasive genius. It’s a tough ask, to be fair, to recreate the heady excitement of the era of free love, stonewall riots, the Vietnam war, and anti- segregation protests for a celluloid audience in the 21st century, when the ideological underpinnings of those decades have been all but bleached out by consumerist capitalism. What hasn’t dimmed, however, is the pull of Mapplethorpe’s iconography.

Man in Polyester Suit, for instance, one of his most iconic photographs, shows the torso of a male figure wearing a three-piece suit, with his penis hanging out of the fly. Made in 1980 as part of the ‘X Portfolio’, which includes a series of steamy and sexually charged portraits, it features Milton Moore, one of Mapplethorpe’s last lovers. It was among the several photographs that caused a furore when it was displayed after the artist’s death. Three decades on, in spite of our hindsight into Mapplethorpe’s crucial place in the history of modern art, the image causes just as much discomfort, not only because of what it shows, but also for what it doesn’t: the gaze of the white male artist objectifying a black male subject.

Back in 1989, Jesse Helms, a senator from North Carolina, had attacked this image for obscenity, especially for “promoting homosexuality”. But while he was appalled by Mapplethorpe’s absorption in same-sex relationships and BDSM culture, what riled Helms more was the fact that the image was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the federal government that supports projects which exhibit “artistic excellence”. In spite of the irony of such scenarios, or perhaps because of it, the value of Mapplethorpe’s work shot up over the years. For instance, around the time it was made, a print of Man in Polyester Suit sold for $2,500. In 2015, nearly 35 years later, when it was put out on auction by Sotheby’s, it far exceeded its pre-sale estimate of $250,000- 350,000, clocking up a staggering $478,000 in the final bid.

The unholy trinity of leather fetish, S&M Clubs and pornographic magazines became intrinsic to Mapplethrope’s life and, later, the raw material for some of his finest art

Like Warhol, Mapplethorpe was deeply drawn to the lure of big money, especially towards the end of his life, as AIDS loomed over him like a death sentence. He worked at a frantic pace, in spite of his failing health, shooting portraits on private commission and for magazines, charging as much as $10,000 for a session, while adding to his own burgeoning personal portfolio. To complement the ‘X Portfolio’, he made a ‘Y Portfolio’, which consisted mostly of erotically suggestive images of flowers, and yet another ‘Z Portfolio’, where he filed away statuesque nude portraits of black men. He also created a stunning body of work featuring Lisa Lyon, a woman bodybuilding champion, that queered socially entrenched notions of femininity, physical strength, and sexuality.

Yet, in spite of the confidence with which he created these startling bodies of work, Mapplethorpe didn’t start off as a photographer. Far from it, he came to photography with no training in the medium at all, after a circuitous journey of self-discovery that involved experimenting with drawing, painting, erotica, collage and Polaroid.

In her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, writer and musician Patti Smith, one of Mapplethorpe’s early lovers, who later became a friend and ally, describes his struggle to find a form and voice during his early years. Brought up by devout Catholic parents in Floral Park, Queens, Mapplethorpe escaped to New York as a young man and enrolled at the Pratt Institute. A gifted painter since his early years, his juvenilia showed a strong influence of Picasso, before Mapplethorpe discovered the French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp and, later, Warhol’s Pop Art.

Living in New York in the late 60s and early 70s, addicted to drugs, dead broke and suffering from STD, he was nursed and supported by Smith, who was also trying to find her footing as an artist. It was during a temporary break-up from Smith that Mapplethorpe found his artistic persona, as he reached into the recesses of his sexuality. During a short stay in California, he realised that he was gay, and especially attracted to the seedy underbelly of sexual subcultures. The unholy trinity of leather fetish, S&M clubs, and pornographic magazines soon became intrinsic to Mapplethorpe’s life and, later, the raw material for some of his finest art.

Apart from Smith’s unflinching presence during his formative years, Mapplethorpe was nurtured by the bohemian community of artists who were his neighbours at the iconic Chelsea Hotel in New York. But it was a chance meeting with Sam Wagstaff in 1972, a wealthy patron of the arts who became his lover, that proved to be a turning point for him. From buying him a loft that became his studio to an expensive camera that gave Mapplethrope’s work the depth that Polaroid could not, Wagstaff was not only instrumental behind the making of a major 20th- century artist but also bringing to photography the esteem it deserved by becoming one of its most extensive collectors.

In his relationship with Wagstaff, as with the many models who appeared in his photographs, Mapplethrope was aware of the transactional dynamics of their interactions. That’s why he remained as much of a participant in ‘the cycle of exploitation’ that he thrived on, capturing the corporeal realities of his own body in a series of riveting, often grisly, self-portraits.

In 1978, for instance, Mapplethorpe made Self-Portrait with Whip, where he looks defiantly back at the camera as he inserts a whip into himself. Shockingly explicit, the image was perhaps intended as a jolt to his Roman Catholic family. Ten years later, in his last self-portrait, he appeared much transformed, face wizened beyond recognition, holding a skull cane, like a memento mori. But the fire in his eyes burnt bright still.