Cocks and Flowers




I FIRST FIXED on writing about Robert Mapplethorpe after watching the recent TV airing of the documentary Look at the Pictures, an intriguing compilation narrative of images and interviews of the artist done a quarter-century after his death. I surprised myself, having tuned in fairly lackadaisically, more out of a general sort of cultural curiosity than anything else — but while that curiosity was being gratified in the expected ways, I was also unexpectedly struck, or, more fittingly, pierced.

I want the word in the Roland Barthesian sense, pointing to the anomalous detail in a photograph that penetrates to the viewer’s unconscious and arrests the attention. On one level, as the subject was Mapplethorpe, the film was itself a long sequence of anomalies — as the man’s life was a vivid assemblage of just such. But the mythology that has grown up around all things Mapplethorpe has tamed these into a fashionable narrative, so that, paradox of paradoxes, what catches the eye — what caught my eye, anyway — is what some might think is the least anomalous thing. What quickened my interest — fixated me — was not penises or positionings or leather straps or Patti Smith. Rather, it was a short sequence of his photographs of flowers and the almost palpable silence created by their classic display. (That and a moment of voice-over in which Mapplethorpe avowed that for him the most important quality of a subject was the sculptural — I’ll get to this.)

Struck as I was by those few images of flowers, I went looking for more, even though I knew well the risk of wearing out that first appeal. I made my way to Google Images, hoping to catch a sense of the extent and range of that one subject matter, and at the same time wondering if I might not find an opportunity to write about what I found, that being, for me, the surest way to bring it in close.

In the course of my searches, I also began looking for articles and essays about Mapplethorpe, and it was here that a strange thing happened. I already knew that the release of the film and various publications had put the artist back in the public eye. There had been a cover piece in Bookforum, I saw, and then my clicking landed me on what looked to be a substantive essay in The New York Review of Books, by Luc Sante, no less. The perfect writer for the job, I thought, and straightaway began to read. I won’t recount the contents here — they are, as I indicate, readily available online — except to say that I was gratified by the critical thoughtfulness, noting as I read my impulse to be flagging quotes and anecdotal bits. It was not until after I had finished, when I was looking back to see which books were being reviewed, that I noticed (here imagine the head-slapping double take): the essay had been published in 1995!

What does this mean — besides carelessness and presumption on my part? Since it happened very soon after I’d watched the documentary, the main lines of that portrait still fresh in my mind, the fact that I could read so obliviously suggests that not much has changed about the perception of Mapplethorpe’s career or his art. The doc’s title, Look at the Pictures, directly quotes Jesse Helms’s dramatic denunciation of Mapplethorpe on the Senate floor in 1989 (just months after the artist’s death), and the film begins with footage of that event. Luc Sante’s now 20-year-old review invokes Helms’s theatrics as well — so, yes, the fixative has set. As Oscar Wilde is framed for all posterity by the scandal of his trial and imprisonment for homosexuality, so Mapplethorpe will very likely have his artistic identity permanently branded as outré. Which of course was the image he created and then played to, for all sorts of complex and also obvious reasons — the fact that it was lucrative and fame-propulsive among them.

The trajectory of Mapplethorpe’s life has been quite thoroughly documented — from his misfit boyhood in Queens to his art school days at Pratt; the hip-joined hipster dyad he made with Patti Smith; his coming out as homosexual more or less concurrent with his discovery of photography; then the confident emergence of his distinctive stylistic attack on taboo subjects; patronage and swift public success; and, finally, the ruinous death from AIDS. The last sad fact, coupled with the highly publicized court case in 1990, caused by the cancellation of his big retrospective show in Cincinnati, ratified what had already become the received image.

That image is now further consolidated with the Getty Research Institute’s publication of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, a substantial volume edited by Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick, and including essays by Patti Smith and Jonathan Weinberg. The cover uses a photo-image of Judy Linn’s 1970 portrait of the artist at 24. Shirtless and wearing an array of necklaces, his long hair in attractive period disarray, his eyes downcast, his expression broody and vulnerable — it all telegraphs vulnerability, sensibility instead of scandal.

The contents do, at first, support that impression. For The Archive is precisely that — an ordered and annotated sampling of the Mapplethorpe collection now housed at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. As the materials are arranged in chronological sequence, we get a good representative sampling of Mapplethorpe’s beginnings, from art school days — drawings, collages, and constructions — and also a few early photographs taken from his now-become-almost-mythic time with Patti Smith. The young man in Linn’s photo gets his exposure. But of course there is so much else.

We know that Mapplethorpe emerged rather abruptly as the artist we recognize in 1970, a year after he came out as a gay man, when fellow Chelsea Hotel resident, the photographer Sandy Daley, loaned him her Polaroid camera. This was shortly before he met and became involved with legendary arts curator Sam Wagstaff, who bought him a loft and a Hasselblad. Life can move quickly, and talent can explode. In 1973 Mapplethorpe had his first show — 30 Polaroids — with subject matter featuring some of his arresting and explicit male nudes. Four years later, adopting a strategy of separating out subjects and approaches — one that was later overt in his use of letter-named X, Y, and Z portfolios, each designating an aspect of his work — he had his first major exhibition, the display split between two venues: the Holly Solomon Gallery featured an array of portraits, and the Kitchen displayed the more sexually provocative images.

It was the latter, no surprise, that made his name, and The Archive provides a strong sampling of the evolution of that work from inception through to the time of his death. Those images, often accompanied by publicizing public outcry, have been much discussed, perhaps more politically than in dispassionate formal/aesthetic terms, though there has been no shortage of the latter either. Much of the discussion turns, naturally, on whether content and formal presentation can in fact be separated.

Mapplethorpe’s own actions and pronouncements do not make matters any simpler. He was, on the one hand, keenly aware of how the controversy over content captured attention and boosted prices, and that awareness certainly guided his choice of subjects. But he also repeatedly made clear his formal obsessiveness, his focus on the sculptural, architectural, and optical vision that determined everything he did, and that in his mind put his more controversial photographs — the vividly displayed, sometimes disturbingly contorted penises, say — on a continuum with his fabulous (and, in the view of many critics, highly eroticized) flowers.

Often publicly exhibited, these flowers get no space in The Archive, though I don’t think I’m alone in believing they might be among his finest pieces, and also possibly a clarifying access point to the whole.

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COCKS & FLOWERS was the title used on the signage for part of an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work in Düsseldorf in 2010. The deliberate collision of associational verbal registers communicates a good deal — “cock” with its swaggering street bluntness, and “flowers” — well, you know, flowers … Yet there is that conjoining conjunction, the suggestion that these are not unassimilated opposites, but adjacent nouns and visually kindred subjects. Complex surfaces laden with association, to be sure, but also available for other kinds of inspection — inspection that may scour away those associations and “expose” these entities — curved buttock, curved petal — for the fascinating shapes they also are.

Of course, associations can never be entirely stripped away, no matter how artfully the image is defamiliarized. But this, I would say, is also the point; it is the manipulated tension that determines success. Though how would we measure that tension? In what ways is it deployed and for what effect?

The flowers, of course, offer easier access to further investigation. As a subject they carry less possibility of being objectionable — they’re flowers! — and the purging of association amounts, in part, to a purging of sentiment. This means, for starters, isolating the flower as an object without context; highlighting its shapes against a stark backdrop in the way that best reveals pure form. Mapplethorpe does this with exceptional rigor. Purity of attention is evident via optical precision as well as the almost intellectual framing that asserts his reverence for these visual attributes. He removes them as much as possible from softness or textured delicacy. Indeed, he does everything he can with lens and darkroom work to give us that moment of dissociation in which we see not the flower but rather the more abstract thing that will almost instantly assemble itself into one. In that split-second free fall, that gap before naming, the effect is registered.

Consider, for instance, Calla Lily 1987 in a series at the Mapplethorpe Foundation online. Contemplating the photograph, the viewer sees these strategies right away. A clean length of stem angles from bottom left at 45 degrees, and one third of the way up breaks into the white origami shape of the flower — such a white against such a black! Getting this contrast exactly right is a feat, one that Mapplethorpe, with his legendary insistence on formal perfection was able to pull off time and again. The photograph shows a Weston-like attunement to the sculptural possibilities of the subject. The sharp articulation of boundary lines is countered by the slightest soft suggestion of depth, with an almost demure delineation of the shadow of the spadix, as well as the winking accent of the petal’s very tip, which curls up like a little white pig’s tail.

Also, of course, there is the absolute rightness of the positioning. The calla lily offers a shape so arresting that the viewer might almost think the result was a happy product of point and click. Not so. Go study a hundred images of this shapeliest of flowers, one as fine as the next, and I venture that it will be Mapplethorpe’s that stands apart. By the merest increments, maybe. But this, too, reveals the tolerances such an artist is working with. The positioning feels absolute. An obsessive cropper, Mapplethorpe has engineered a tense yet also satisfying equilibrium of parts, the leftward thrust of stem balanced and then ever-so-slightly unsettled by the uptilt of that tiny dwindling “tail.” Every time I look at this — and I have now looked at it often — I find that it turns into a flower only on the double take. Before — and after — it is sharply registered revelation of light, shape, and design.

But now about those cocks.

Here things get a bit more complicated. How not? A flower is a flower, after all, and a cock … Well, a cock is many things, and Mapplethorpe captured some of the range of the signifying possibilities, portraying cocks in diverse contexts, though not those of heterosexual activity. If, as I argued earlier, a flower can have its flower-ness momentarily bracketed off to reveal other artistic possibilities, a cock cannot — or certainly not as readily. Linked as they are as visual subjects, there are also limits to their kinship. Nor do I think such pure estrangement was necessarily what Mapplethorpe was after with his variously posed models exhibiting their manhood. So what was he after?

Many things, I would hazard. Shock, camp, comedic juxtapositions — all sorts of effects readily available and artistically tempting given the charged power of what Jacques Lacan called “the transcendent signifier.” But one constant, nearly always present as an element of the work, was some kind of defamiliarization. However it appears in the frame of the photograph, the cock is not often shown as the basic natural appendage that it also is. In Mapplethorpe’s images, the “phallus” is either wrenched from naturalness by bizarre positioning — protruding from the front of a suit, standing erect as the model holds a pistol, bent this way and that — or assertively sexualized, whether in an actual sexual act, or in prelude; or else it is a disproportionately large specimen.

In other words, no matter what else the photograph offers, the viewer can’t help but think, (as the photographer surely intended), “Oh my, a penis!” Add to that the long cultural transmission of penis as visual taboo, and the focus is only intensified. So that where looking at Mapplethorpe’s flowers the viewer first sees shape, texture, and position, then flower, the perceptual sequence is reversed when he presents the male organ. The viewer sees cock and cock again, and only later does the rest of the image come into focus.

Both treatments are about estrangement, yes, but where the flowers directly serve an aesthetic classicism, the cocks express diverse emphases. This is because, with certain exceptions, they do finally have obvious contexts — are attached to bodies — and as such have pleasure and pain as part of their inevitable repertoire. Mapplethorpe exploits this primal assumption to the limit.

His various artistic approaches to the male (and female) body run a gamut from the hyper-sexualized to the all-but-abstract. Positioning and framing — and intent — can turn an eroticized figure into a study of mass and shadow. One stunning silhouetted nude plays the profiled arc of a prominent penis against the upcurving line of torso and opposing arcs of buttock and thigh. The cock — though here it is less “cock” than “penis” — is completely integral to the balance, and is actually viewed first in this way. We remark on its other associations only after that split-second delay.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs of flowers and nudes, are not without their questioners and critics. In his 1995 essay, Luc Sante wrote of Mapplethorpe, “When he set about depicting easily understandable beauty […] he tended to glaze it, in fact to beautify it.” He goes on to quote fellow critic Peter Schjeldahl, claiming that he has isolated 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.

Tricky distinctions here, but putting a bit of pressure on them might take us closer to Mapplethorpe’s intentions. For starters, I would question Sante’s words glaze and depicting and their implications. The former suggests a superficial kind of prettifying, and the latter gets us right into artistic process. But I don’t think it’s so simple a business, with either of these subjects, as locating something beautiful and then reproducing it for the viewer. The verb “depicting” deemphasizes the photographer’s role in making the image. The work behind that radiantly clean image is creative in high degree. It offers, through positioning, cropping, and tonal manipulation a presentation of a version of reality unlike any other — an act of original seeing. And it does so assertively — there is not a whiff of happenstance here, no sense of accident. Mapplethorpe’s visual sensibility and artistic will are fully present.

The notion of the artist’s “beautifying” beauty remains controversial. It’s as if to say that he is motivated to manipulate or add because the object or subject is not itself sufficient. But my response to an image like the Calla Lily is pretty much the opposite. For me, rather than heightening, it seems to be taking away every possible impediment to a complete apprehension of the thing-in-itself. And that it is staged — given its runway — is not so much a matter of beautification as celebration. Responses, of course, will differ: for all of art’s persuasion, we can’t help but see things as we need to.

Schjeldahl’s opposition of hunger and taste is also provocative in this context, as is the assertion that underlying everything is a “strenuously maintained sense of wanting.” True as this is of some of the more immediately sexual images — anything sexual is implicitly about wanting — the assertion does not resonate with my own experience of the flowers or the more sculpturally posed nudes. Indeed, the sculptural quality — and, again, let’s not forget that the sculptural was, by his own insistence, Mapplethorpe’s primary preoccupation — proposes for them a time-frame that transcends the agitations of wanting. These select images create a stillness that feels beyond. And in this way they remove us from the immediacy of bodily expression that is so central to his more controversial images.

Rilke wrote of fame as “the sum of misunderstanding that gathers around a new name.” With Mapplethorpe that gathering seems mostly complete, and while the misunderstandings are hardly unwarranted — or even misunderstandings, really — I would campaign for more recognition of the seeing that is behind the images; what it suggests about an essential countering sensibility. Hunger and taste — or maybe we should call them Dionysian and Apollonian impulses — are without question the applicable polarities. We find them in so many of the photographs where erotic content is presented with the classicist’s detached eye; but they also exist, no less obviously, across the arc of the whole career. The danger, as always with the sensational, is that the narrative will be skewed.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, illuminating and useful as it is, supports that skewing. The visual contents foreground the more familiarly provocative Mapplethorpe. Apart from the portraits, a generous sampling of his pre–1970s work in various media, and a section on Mapplethorpe as a collector, those contents mainly comprise work that would have been parceled out to the Kitchen exhibition back in ’73: The book does not offer much to the apologists of the Apollonian, though without that impetus, which is present everywhere in the mature work — if only at times through the severity of cropping, or the balances struck between the fact of a harnessed cock and its careful placement as a shape within the frame — Mapplethorpe would not have become the artist he did.

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Sven Birkerts most recently authored Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age.


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