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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,118

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This is the grave of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Born in 1946 in Floral Park, Queens, Mapplethorpe grew up pretty well off. His father was an electrical engineer. He graduated from high school in 1963, went to the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn to study photography, and dropped out before graduating. Mapplethorpe was already pretty into the New York art scene and surrounded himself with other artistic people. He started dating a young singer named Patti Smith who also badly wanted success. They remained a couple for five years and would be linked forever in the artistic mind of the United States. He was basically mooching off her for most of this. She worked in bookstores, he shot pictures he couldn’t sell.

In 1972, Mapplethorpe left Smith for Sam Wagstaff, an art curator 25 years older than he who would become both his mentor and his romantic partner. This was in the early days of open homosexuality, even in New York, and Mapplethorpe would embrace this new orientation, later to notorious ends and he made it so central to his art. To understand Mapplethorpe’s life and art, we have to spend a bit on the burgeoning gay scene of the era. By the early to mid 70s, gay communities began to come into their own. A whole lot of people, both male and female, began to see the possibility for acceptance–from themselves and others like them–of who they were. The gay male and female communities took on very different characteristics, sexual behaviors, politics, and relationships to power structures. The complexities of all of this can be worked out in future posts on prominent queer Americans in this series. For our purposes and that of Mapplethorpe, we have to understand how liberating this was and what it was like being around a bunch of men much like himself at this particular time. The 1970s was the peak period of the Sexual Revolution, gay, straight, or otherwise. It was a period of risky sexual behavior, from a public health standpoint. The gay male communities in cities such as New York and San Francisco really embraced the sexual possibilities of being single and queer with nothing or no one to hold them back. Why would they be held back? That was the life they sought to escape. So they did not. The combination of the times, the liberation, the freedom, and the overwhelming testosterone of this community led to a real explosion in clubs where risky sexual behavior took place. Few were concerned about it at the time. Sure there were diseases, but that was what the penicillin was for.

Mapplethorpe was not exactly a documentary photographer, but he effectively became the documentarian for the BSDM scene in New York, based around the subtly named Mineshaft Club, where he spent much of his free time. It wasn’t just that he photographed the BSDM scene. In fact, he was a wide-ranging photographer, usually working in a beautiful black and white. He and Smith remained very close and his picture of her graces the cover of her astounding debut album Horses. He was a noted still life photographer in an era where that was old-fashioned. He was also an excellent portrait photographer. He was so connected to the New York art scene that he photographed nearly everyone at one time or another–Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop, Philip Glass, Louise Bourgeois, Peter Gabriel, the list goes on and on. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be documented by the great photographer. He also was obsessed with the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon and took hundreds of pictures of her, culminating in his 1983 book, Lady, Lisa Lyon.

By 1977, Mapplethorpe was receiving serious solo shows. He had two shows in New York that year. One was of flowers. The other was of sadomaschoistic gay men. Talk about very different themes. But he was a star after this, one of the most important artists of his time.

Mapplethorpe also courted controversy. In 1986, he published a book of his photos on Black men, The Black Book, which many saw as exploitative. Perhaps it was. Mapplethorpe clearly did have an interest in the sexually dominant Black man, which so often reinforces stereotypes. The poet and critic Essex Hemphill, also gay and Black, noted that the subjects were physically beautifully but that Mapplethorpe seemed to have no interest in exploring the political realities of Black America except as sexual subjects. This sounds pretty right to me. At the very end of his life, Mapplethorpe moved to experiment in color photographs and it’s interesting to think where that might have gone had he survived.

In 1987, Wagstaff died of AIDS. Soon after, Mapplethorpe started to decline due to the horrible disease as well. He knew he was dying. He also wanted to protect his artistic legacy. So he founded the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation that ran his estate (which given the AIDS epidemic and all the people it was claiming in his community was something he really did need to take care of), promoted his work, and also has raised a lot of money for AIDS awareness and prevention, as well as developing an AIDS treatment center in his name.

As he was dying, Mapplethorpe had a major show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. This included many of his BSDM photos, including a bullwhip shoved up his own ass. This was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and for those, such as the evil Jesse Helms, who wanted to discredit the public funding of the arts, this was a gold mine. Helms decried the NEA and demanded it be defunded. The Corcoran quickly caved under pressure and cancelled the show. Of course, all of this made Mapplethorpe and his work way more famous than it would have been if they had just had the show, so, uh, thanks Jesse? In fact, it got worse for the Corcoran. The pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt had bequeathed the museum $1.5 million in his will, but he said he’s pull it if they didn’t run the show. They didn’t and he gave the money to another museum. This became the cause of art in the late 1980s.

By chance, the new issue of the New York Review of Books has a discussion of the recently deceased art critic Art Hickey. Let me quote from it because Hickey really despised what he saw as the art community’s cowardly response to these attacks:

This all lays the groundwork for the argument’s true occasion: the controversy surrounding the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition “The Perfect Moment” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989. Hickey’s salvo was aimed not at right-wing politicians—whom he completely opposed—but at his colleagues:

“The American art community, at the apogee of its power and privilege, chose to play the ravaged virgin, flinging itself prostrate across the front pages of America and fairly daring the fascist heel to crush its outraged innocence.”

He accused critics and curators alike of attempting to save their own jobs and of wrapping their defense in the tattered garb of free expression and the sanctity of art, while sidestepping the content of the work itself.

According to Hickey, Senator Jesse Helms looked at Mapplethorpe’s images and understood them very well as an assault on the core principles of his repressive, theocratic worldview. The photographs were all the more threatening because they harnessed the rhetorical force of the Baroque, making the affront inexcusable precisely because it was also beautiful. And here is where that tricky word—“beauty”—becomes a double-edged blade: today it is possible for us to celebrate Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro as foremost an achievement in form only because its ideological work has been accomplished so completely; the “beauty” we admire in those paintings was in fact a visual weapon for changing minds. Similarly, in Mapplethorpe’s pictures, it was the incongruity with which the artist fused his subject matter with an intoxicating mode of direct address:

“So it is not the fact that men are depicted having sex in Robert’s images. At the time, they were regularly portrayed doing so on the walls of private galleries and publicly funded “alternative” spaces all over the country. Thanks to the cult of plain honesty, abjection, and sincere appearance, however, they were not portrayed as doing so persuasively, powerfully, beautifully. Robert makes it beautiful.”

Any attempt to decouple these two dimensions, to insist on form as the redeemer of content, as Hickey felt the “art community” was doing, was an affront to the power of art to mean anything at all. His criticism, circulated in an international art magazine, was leveled directly at the people who were reading it.

While I am not all that knowledgeable about the art scene of the 80s, this seems fundamentally correct to me.

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989. He was 42 years old. Both his parents survived him and unlike so many AIDS victims, his parents loved him enough to be buried with him.

In the decades after his death, Mapplethorpe has been embraced as a gay hero, a hero against prudes attempting to restrict art due to outdated notions of “obscenity,” and one of the great photographers of the era. I don’t think his work is without problems, especially his indifference to thinking about race, but it’s hardly surprising that he is largely adored today.

Robert Mapplethorpe is buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Queens, New York. Maxey is his mother’s maiden name.

If you would like this series to visit other major figures of the 1980s art scene, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jean-Michel Basquiat is in Brooklyn and David Wojnarowicz is in Driftwood, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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