Robert Mapplethorpe made his reputation as a photographer in the period between the 1969 gay-bashing raid at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street and the identification of HIV in 1983. This was the High Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Bourbon Louis Romp, the Victorian imperial pomp, the Jazz Age, the Camelot moonshot, the Swinging Sixties of gay culture in New York.
In the 18th century New York punished sodomy with death. This was later reduced to 14 years’ solitary or hard labour. By 1950, it was only a misdemeanour. By the Seventies, it was becoming positively fashion-able, like a ten-speed bike or a breadmaking machine. The bulk of Mapplethorpe’s pictures of this era, which include a lot of willies, active and inert, chained, pinned, licked and bound, are, depending on your taste, exhilaratingly frank or wince-makingly disgusting.
Mapplethorpe then made a second reputation, after an Aids diagnosis. In his decline, he shot a series of self-portraits showing the ravages the disease wrought on his once- pretty features. These mix residual narcissism with pitiless self-analysis. When he died, aged 42, in 1989 the New York Times obituary described him (and the foundation he established) as ‘a symbol of courage and resistance to the disease’. It said perhaps a little less about his photography.
The man has acquired a reverential aura, witnessed, not least, by these monumental books, each flawlessly produced and very heavy. One is a complete retrospective of his photographs, another a fascinating trawl of his archives and the third a gorgeous album of his flower pictures. But what was he like? In 1969 Mapplethorpe and his lover du jour, the aspiring poet Patti Smith, a woman, moved into the Chelsea Hotel, the Beat hangout. Income from their combined arts could not cover the rent, so Smith went shoplifting while Mapplethorpe went hustling on the East Side.
At this point, it is not quite clear to what extent Smith recognised her partner’s proclivities — although surely ages spent in front of the mirror, combing his hair while in tight leather trousers, then going missing for several hours, might have hinted at the possibility. Later, by now permanently gay, Mapplethorpe made a film about changing Smith’s used sanitary towels. Andy Warhol called the couple ‘dirty’ and ‘horrible’.
In 1977 Mapplethorpe had his first exhibitions in New York: simultaneous showings at the Holly Solomon Gallery and the Kitchen. He was not a reporter, but an active participant in the often violent homoerotic world he photographed. True, he took pictures of nude women, but they seem nerveless and lack sexual charge. It is quite impossible to separate Mapplethorpe’s art from Mapplethorpe’s life, but there are telling contrasts. The former is fine, controlled and often very beautiful, even when treating ugly matter. The latter was a long, long sequence of what Eve Babitz called ‘squalid overboogie’.
These were interesting times. With an incongruity that boggles, the crusty old snob and thin-lipped queen Sir John Pope-Hennessy became a fan, as a letter reproduced in The Archive reveals. ‘The Pope’ had promoted himself from the V&A to the Metropolitan Museum. Until he arrived in New York, he had been a dogmatic champion of traditional art, resisting modernity on all fronts. Yet one 1986 visit to Mapple-thorpe’s studio to have his picture taken convinced the Pope of new artistic possibilities: ‘Painters’ studios are no longer the places where prime works of art are produced,’ he wrote. History does not record what was the precise nature of Pope-Hennessy’s catalytic experience.
But what of the art? Mapple-thorpe, from a humble Anglo-German-Irish family in Queens, studied at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Here his interests were those of a regular art student and The Archive reproduces some late Sixties work which includes tormented Mervyn Peake-like etchings, pen-and-ink drawings, polaroids, riffs on Pop and Duchampian assemblages.
His mature photographs reveal an interest in classical composition, learnt at Pratt, and a keen awareness of physical form. Claiming some inspiration from the Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, theatrically mannered lighting and Greek-heroic postures added exceptional dignity to his subjects, even when those subjects were a spot of energetic fisting or a black man’s enormous schlong hanging dependent from the fly of a tailored polyester suit.
In 1980 Mapplethorpe made a famous pair of self-portraits. One showed a macho hunk leatherman, while the other showed the same man cross-dressed, made-up and coiffured into a femme fatale. I suppose you could say that these pictures illustrate the ambivalence we all feel about sexual identity. But then Mapplethorpe, like Georgia O’Keefe, began eroticising flowers. He had been photographing irises, orchids and lilies from early on, using them to practise composition and finding them possibly more biddable than his frisky partners in gimp masks and chains. But he was no horticulturalist: flowers were brought in from 28th Street market, photographed and then discarded. It is not difficult to sense a metaphor trying to emerge here.
Mapplethorpe’s reputation was generated by the self-regarding, self-promoting, self-adoring milieu of which he was a part. His was a New York of chancers and publicists and semi-talented hustlers like Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose on a vortex of hype. In Outsiders, his 1963 study of deviance, the sociologist Howard S. Becker wrote: ‘Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.’ And, as an extension to that: ‘It’s a work of art because we say it is!’ For reasons of this hermeticism, Manhattan’s favourite literary review is known as the New York Review of Each Others’ Books, a sort of self-help club. In this narcissistic reflecting pool, Mapple-thorpe made many remarkable images. Separated from Smith, he was assisted in his career by his rich, influential lover Sam Wagstaff, a magus of the scene, a collector and patron of Minimalism, who died of Aids two years before Mapplethorpe.
Calculated outrage was a part of the Mapplethorpe project. A 1989 exhibition at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery featured a self-portrait with the thick end of a bullwhip up his bum. There were, additionally, images of urophagia. Reacting to the fuss, the Corcoran cancelled the show and it moved to the less stellar Washington Project for the Arts. With predictably great success, Mapplethrope outraged, for example, the Family Association of Tupelo, Missouri, who did not see in the recreational ingestion of urine, no matter how artfully presented or evidently enjoyed, any valuable source of inspiration or delight.
Polemics and pornography are inseparable in Mapplethorpe, and sometimes get in the way of his art: his flowers are perhaps more unambiguously enjoyable than his frolics. Patti Smith later described herself as a bad girl trying to be good while Mapplethorpe was a good boy trying to be bad. In that, he certainly succeeded. And Mapplethorpe told Dominick Dunne that he thought S&M stood for ‘sex and magic’, a nice retrospective rationalisation. Will his art outlive his status as an Aids martyr? Is there more to it than a fashionable interest in extreme sex? Do these books tell us anything new? I am not at all sure.
An exhibition of photographs — Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium — is at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles,until 31 July. 'Robert Mapplethorpe - The Photographs', £34.00, 'Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive', £34.00 and 'Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers', £100.00 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Stephen Bayley’s Death Drive: There Are No Accidents was published last month