Trial and Eros

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive BY Frances Terpak, Michelle Brunnick. edited by Patti Smith, Jonathan Weinberg. Getty Research Institute. Hardcover, 240 pages. $49.

The cover of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive

I have no secrets.
—Robert Mapplethorpe

By the time Robert Mapplethorpe died in March 1989 at the age of forty-two, he’d prepared for the preservation of his work and legacy. He’d established his foundation. He’d selected a biographer. He’d made what he knew would be his last self-portrait, gripping a cane topped with a death’s head.

The attacks on his work began that June. Representative Dick Armey (R-TX) sent a letter to the National Endowment for the Arts, signed by more than a hundred members of Congress, decrying NEA support for Mapplethorpe’s retrospective “The Perfect Moment,” then touring the country. A month earlier, Senators Alphonse D’Amato (R-NY) and Jesse Helms (R-NC) had initiated the culture war by fulminating against the “sacrilege” in Andres Serrano’s work (part of an NEA-funded group show). With Mapplethorpe, right-wingers learned, to their horror, that the federal government was actually funding work by and about homosexuals.

Every artist attacked during the culture war suffered because of it, but many were artists whose work most Americans had not seen and who were not exactly household names. Mapplethorpe was unique in that he was already rather notorious and his pictures were easy to reproduce and disseminate to those guaranteed to find them intolerable. Senator Helms famously described his wife’s reaction to “The Perfect Moment” catalogue: “Jesse, I’m not believing this.” The catalogue does not even include Mapplethorpe’s images of gay sadomasochism, but—yes—there’s Man in Polyester Suit, which features a large black penis emerging from an unzipped fly, and there are two portraits of children with their genitals exposed. His new critics called it porn. And it seemed to me that, almost invariably, they added that the artist had died of AIDS. I thought they loved mentioning that, but that’s just my projection. I suppose.

So I picked up the Getty Research Institute’s new book Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive prepared to feel agitated once again by culture-war outrages, ancient though they now seem. I couldn’t help it. I was there when the authorities rushed into Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center in April 1990, knocking down velvet ropes and pushing away art-goers to get their hands on museum director Dennis Barrie for the crime of showing “The Perfect Moment” (he was charged with pandering obscenity and “illegal use of a minor in nudity oriented materials”). I saw Barrie emerge to address the crowd outside after he was indicted, covering his face with his hands and saying, “This is a very dark day.” Months later, I was back to cover the trial. On day one, about 150 gay activists demonstrated outside the courthouse, where they faced barricades, paddy wagons, thirty sheriff’s deputies in yellow latex gloves, the mounted police, and a SWAT team. As for the trial itself—don’t get me started.

At that point, I began to see Mapplethorpe the victim more than Mapplethorpe the
artist. An essay in The Archive by Jonathan Weinberg addresses this problem head-on. He asks, Did the spectacle of the culture war blind us to what’s really going on in the work? He cites pieces by Arthur Danto and Luc Sante, both of whom have discussed the impact of the hostile overexposure of Mapplethorpe’s art during those years. Weinberg asserts that “the dual tropes of exposure and censorship—what we are allowed to see and not see—are essential to Mapplethorpe’s work.” He considers all the sexual content in the archive. There’s a lot of it, since it’s central to the art, and of course, there’s no chance that anything will be censored here. So Weinberg doesn’t just ponder the complexity of this material. He asks, What does it mean to see this? Have I seen too much?

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, published in conjunction with a new catalogue of his photographs, gave me a whole new Mapplethorpe story to think about. For starters, this trove of ephemera is rather startling in its difference from the artist’s oeuvre. Here is the chaos never evident in the art he chose to show. Think of a classic Mapplethorpe like Ken Moody and Robert Sherman: two bald men sandwiched together in profile, one black and one white. The photo is elegant, formal, and says nothing about the personality of either man. In fact, it seems almost sculptural. The Archive reveals a possible inspiration behind the picture (a photo by James Abbe) and also makes clear Mapplethorpe’s long-standing interest in sculpture. Before his photography career began, he even tried his hand at it, making small surreal objects, like a leather-clad hand attached to a cylindrical cage filled with dice. Mostly, though, he created assemblages in his loft—helter-skelter arrangements crafted from junk found on the street (furniture, flags, pots and pans, a sword, etc.), cheap religious icons, even his own clothing. They embody disorder, as if to signal that Mapplethorpe hadn’t yet found his focus.

He did not keep journals, but the contact sheets, correspondence, student work, gallery cards, non-editioned prints, and photos he collected all help make clear what Mapplethorpe’s project was and how he figured out what it was. While he did beautiful celebrity portraits, for example, there’s little evidence of it here, apart from Polaroid test shots. But The Archive does include his early and mostly unknown work with queer subject matter: a collage for the cover of Gay Power, “New York’s First Homosexual Newspaper,” and one in which two men engaged in fellatio are barely visible behind a red acrylic “X,” and sculptures made from his own underwear wrapped around empty picture frames. We see that his most important work had to do with “elevating the sexual male image into the mainstream,” as Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick put it in their accompanying text. He saw not just homoeroticism but gay sadomasochism as valid subjects for art, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for his radical approach to this subject matter.

My own introduction to his work was the cover photo he took for Patti Smith’s Horses. It’s hard to convey now just how startling that image was in 1975. I’ve always appreciated the way he photographed women like Smith and—a few years later—bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. Even though many of the Lyon pictures are nudes, they don’t seem prurient to me. Like the Smith portrait, they convey strength and audacity. Mapplethorpe is usually described as apolitical, and he was definitely no activist. But he was one of the artists from his era who played with gender, and I see politics in that. His women are so self-assured, his men such objects of desire.

He did not set out to be a photographer. The earliest pieces in The Archive—drawings and etchings—date from 1967, the year he met Smith. He was still a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, trying to figure out what kind of artist he wanted to be. Maybe he’d try advertising design. Maybe graphic arts. But photography? No. He took two photography courses but rarely attended class and saved only one of his student photos, a self-portrait. He was certainly known later for those, but this early image, reproduced in The Archive, is a picture of someone who’s hiding. He’s layered different sizes and angles of his own face onto the print and covered all of it with a red plastic film—as if to say, I’m not here. I am not yet myself. If you want to trace an artist’s development, this is what you want in an archive: the false starts and the floundering. Something is still revealed.

The early drawings show that he wasn’t a bad draftsman. No doubt he could have developed that skill further, if drawing had really interested him. His favorite form seems to have been collage, and a talent for composition was already there. In her essay for this book, Smith recalls him devising a “game-board terrain,” where he’d place the images he cut out, and that his subjects changed over time from Catholic saints to demonology to sideshow freaks to sailors from a softcore-porn magazine. Among the last drawings included in this book (ca. 1970)is one of a semierect penis above a biomorphic shape in the ground as the business end of a scissors juts in from above. While those sharp points are menacing, they also render the penis somewhat flowerlike—a connection that became explicit in his photographic work. Around the same time, Mapplethorpe filled an album with multimedia collages—spray paint on screens and stencils layered over found images, most of them from gay-porn magazines. Terpak and Brunnick point out that he was already trying to elevate pornography to an art form, a quest that would reach fruition in 1978 with his “X” portfolio. But he still was not a photographer.

© The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, gift and promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
© The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, gift and promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Mapplethorpe came out as a gay man in 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots. Though he and Smith were no longer lovers, they remained close and moved from Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel together. He was trying to support himself by selling jewelry he made from beads, crosses, skulls, dice, claws, etc. Some of it is documented here. We also get a sense of his collections: fly-fishing lures, mid-twentieth-century pottery, physique photos (the coy precursor to gay porn), sacred objects related to Catholicism, Buddhism, and Aleister Crowley–style magick. And more.

It seems he was always making something. Once he and Smith moved to a loft a few doors down from the Chelsea, he had space to work on the assemblages described above—his art life still unsettled. And they were still often at the Chelsea. (The new loft had no toilet.) He and Smith met filmmaker-musicologist Harry Smith at the hotel, and Mapplethorpe began work on an animated film he never finished. Smith filmed some of Mapplethorpe’s “constructions” for his magnum opus, Mahogonny. Another Chelsea Hotel resident, the filmmaker and photographer Sandy Daley, loaned Mapplethorpe her Polaroid camera in 1970. It wasn’t yet apparent that this was a life-changing moment, but he began to experiment. “Use the subject matter that interests you most, even if it’s shocking,” she advised. “It’s all in how it’s framed—just make it look like a Louis XV chair.”

Mapplethorpe had a gift for meeting the right people. As he began to take Polaroids of his own wall assemblages (eleven are included in The Archive), his boyfriend, David Croland, introduced him to John McKendry, photo curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). Soon McKendry was giving this neophyte who didn’t even own a camera access to the museum’s photo archive. Then McKendry gave Mapplethorpe a Polaroid camera of his own. About a year later, Croland introduced Mapplethorpe to Sam Wagstaff, a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Within months, Wagstaff bought Mapplethorpe a loft on Bond Street and a Hasselblad. Put so bluntly, it may sound crass, but this was one of those legendary art-world partnerships. Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe would change each other’s lives, and they seemed to know it immediately (see Philip Gefter’s recent book Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe). Both went on from this point to do the work they’d be remembered for.

Mapplethorpe had his first solo show—with about thirty Polaroids—in the Light Gallery’s back room in 1973. The invitation featured a kind of self-portrait, a crotch shot in which Mapplethorpe holds a camera just above his genitals, which are discreetly covered with a white dot. The wrapper or envelope says “DON’T TOUCH HERE,” a phrase taken from Polaroid film’s protective cover. In this modest exhibition, he was already showing nudes and flowers and, as he put it, “the nudes were a little more explicit than most nudes at the time.” He was also conscious of presenting his pictures in a certain sequence and structure. “Sometimes to me the structure in which a photograph is presented is as important as the photograph itself,” he said. This explains the care he took with the “X,” “Y,” and “Z” portfolios.

Terpak and Brunnick’s first chapter begins with a discussion of Mapplethorpe’s first major exhibitions in 1977, opening the same day but split between Holly Solomon Gallery, with twenty-some portraits, and the Kitchen, with about a dozen “sexually charged” pictures like Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 1/2). This 1976 photo of a porn star in leather chaps is cropped to put the penis (resting on a plinth) at the center of the frame. The Kitchen show, Terpak and Brunnick observe, was Mapplethorpe’s second “‘coming out,’ this time as a leatherman.”

His art career would last for eleven years, and it was remarkably consistent: portraits, figure studies, flowers, and sex. In the late ’70s, he began photographing black men—usually nude, often in poses based on classical sculpture or historical photographs. While working with curator Janet Kardon on “The Perfect Moment,” Mapplethorpe designed the case for the “X,” “Y,” and “Z” portfolios, which displayed thirty-nine photographs in three rows. Along the top were the “X” pictures (gay s/m), then the “Y” (flowers) and the “Z” (figure studies of black men). Seen together, the pictures inform each other, and at 13 1/2 by 13 1/2", they are relatively small. Many of them seem sexual but can also be read, horizontally or vertically, for their compositional elements. This was the culmination of one of Mapplethorpe’s lifelong preoccupations—was there a way to present hard-core sexual material as art?

One thing that becomes clear in The Archive is how much he did with cropping. Many photographers compose in the camera and want the entire negative to be printed. But Mapplethorpe would frame his picture on the contact sheet—and not just with Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 1/2), which shows Stevens’s face in the original. A contact sheet with Mapplethorpe’s portraits of the drag queen Aira shows the judicious cropping he used to create her portrait. Many of the pictures in the “X” portfolio are cropped to remove any hints of narrative or personality, which porn often has. His photo of men fist-fucking is so close-up it seems abstract. It’s about shapes.

In Cincinnati, the authorities singled out five pictures from the “X” portfolio. When Kardon testified, she talked about horizontal lines, the lighting, the way a figure had been centered. Commenting on one of the five—a rather tightly cropped image of a man inserting a finger into his penis—she said, “Robert said he thought those hand gestures were beautiful.” The judge ruled that she could not discuss the most crucial thing about these pictures—their context, meaning the rest of the “X,” “Y,” and “Z” portfolios. Nor could she say why they were the only photos presented in a case, not hung on the wall. But as I said—don’t get me started.

Art-world discussions of Mapplethorpe’s photographs before the culture war seemed to revolve around a couple of questions. Was his work just commercial? And all those photos of black men—wasn’t he just, in the words of Jonathan Weinberg, “fetishizing stereotypical racial characteristics”? Those topics were put on hold when the religious right began attacking the work. But they are part of the real legacy, not the phony one imposed in Cincinnati, and this book will certainly help in redirecting our attention. Mapplethorpe never knew about the culture war, and he had a standard reply that covered all his choices of subject matter—from black men to a female rock star dressed like Frank Sinatra to fist-fucking: “I hadn’t seen pictures like that before.”

Cynthia Carr is the author, most recently, of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, 2012). She is at work on a biography of Candy Darling.