Unlike most people familiar with Robert Mapplethorpe, my curiosity with the artist arose not from an aesthetic origin but from a geographical one. As a Cincinnati native, born in the early 1990s, I’d hear his name spoken with some kind of embarrassed shudder, and I’d understand how memory can so easily turn to myth. In 1990, when Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment exhibit came to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center, the director Dennis Barrie was indicted on obscenity charges, commencing a fierce clash between the right and left amid the tumultuous culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s. Mapplethorpe had died from AIDS the year before his exhibit reached Cincinnati, and so his presence in my hometown has always been a haunting one. Judging from the bounty of recent projects concerning Mapplethorpe, his legacy seems to haunt the United States itself. A biopic, two enormous retrospectives in Los Angeles’s Getty and LACMA museums, and the first authorized documentary — Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures — gesture toward a resurgence of interest in the artist. If there is an afterlife, the irony is not lost on Mapplethorpe that his perfect moment might be unraveling posthumously.
With the luxury of time we can see the effect of the war waged on Mapplethorpe’s art — a war not exactly won, but one that ended in ceasefire. The crucible of the culture wars purified his vision into the one thing he wanted it to be: perfect. Mapplethorpe spent the entirety of his brief life trying to achieve fame, perfection, and total beauty, even if it meant re-engineering what those concepts meant. In the late 1970s, when the art world was still shy about the use of color in serious fine art photography, Mapplethorpe was taking selfies with bullwhips up his ass. Though his subject matter was varied, it was frequently united by a tendency to yoke the spiritual with the corporeal, to remap the spectator’s comforts and perceptions of the beautiful. Early Polaroids toyed around with portraiture and the self-image. Later works moved toward a refined ideal — whether floral still lifes or images of his longtime models Lisa Lyons and Ken Moody, they sought to depict paragons, reducing a person or thing to its very essence.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures mostly serves to corroborate the artist’s mythology and the nexus of contradictions that mark his biography. He was a willowy kid from Queens with few friends who got a Polaroid camera and revolutionized the way we look at things. He was both a ruthless social climber and a lonely victim of society’s homophobic attitudes, a lapsed Catholic who became the patron saint of both New York’s queer underworld and the art world’s upper echelons. His life can feel unbelievable at times, a quality perhaps owed to the perceived chasm between his culture and that of today’s viewership.
So much has been written and said about Mapplethorpe that the documentary’s radical approach is simply to show us his photographs and let us hear him and his friends discuss his life. Directed by Fento Bailey and Randy Barbato and released by HBO, Look at the Pictures takes its name from Senator Jesse Helms’s denunciation of Mapplethorpe in his successful effort to cut NEA funding for “obscene” art: “Just look at the pictures,” he instructed.
The most “challenging” and most persecuted pictures from The Perfect Moment are from that show’s “X Portfolio,” which contained sadomasochistic imagery and genitalia. Look at the Pictures offers a trove of these “dirty” pictures: images of fisting, erotic bondage, a man pissing into another’s mouth. We’re given explanations by curators, photographers, family, close friends, and Mapplethorpe himself that reveal the artist’s impulse as aesthetic — perfectionist, not pornographic.
“The whole point of being an artist or making a statement is to learn about yourself,” Mapplethorpe says in one of the film’s granular audio clips. “The photographs are less important than the life that one is leading.” Yet the photographs and the life can be hard to tell apart, as Mapplethorpe’s images are helplessly tangled with his biography. Rather than record his experiences in letters, a journal, or to simply confide in people, he preferred to take pictures of the people and things that were close to him. This presents a challenging task for Bailey and Barbato: how does one document a life that is, in a sense, pre-documented by the artist himself? The route that Look at the Pictures takes is to primarily tell the story of Mapplethorpe’s photographs over the story of Mapplethorpe himself. Because it has to cover so much territory, the ultimate result is a chronology with some fascinating avenues left only half-explored. Most glaringly, it explores how and why Mapplethorpe built his legacy, but it fails to reckon with how that legacy has changed over time as cultural transactions occur less in museums or physical spaces, but more on the internet, where the democratization of images, art, and pornography has transformed Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre for a new audience.
A recent show at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Perfect Moment engaged with Mapplethorpe’s art-historical legacy in the city that his work left asunder. Titled After The Moment, the show featured dozens of photos from local artists inspired by Mapplethorpe, an overwhelming cornucopia of images that reflected surprisingly little about Mapplethorpe’s influence simply because there was so much of it. Mapplethorpe’s deceptively simple body of work, it seems, is a cultural parallax from which an infinite number of social, political, and sexual dimensions can be viewed. The true legacy of Mapplethorpe’s work, however, could be found in the center’s gift shop, where perfumed candles emblazoned with his photographs were being sold. This is the complex fate of Mapplethorpe: his art, once deemed sacrilegious, is now as institutionally sacred as it is salable.
Indeed, since his death, Mapplethorpe’s art has undergone a kind of gentrification. It’s hard to determine whether his photographs were participants in or parodies of the commercial art market that Mapplethorpe was always hurtling toward. His images frequently crackle with burlesque, anticorporate comedy like “Man in Polyester Suit,” which featured Mapplethorpe’s lover Milton Moore wearing a three-piece suit with his flaccid penis exposed and which recently sold for nearly half a million dollars at Sotheby’s. Mapplethorpe in the 21st century has a kind of irony — not only because the image market has embraced and domesticated his transgressive pictures, but also because it has outpaced him. Indeed, what was so challenging, hidden, and startling during the artist’s lifetime has now become nearly bourgeois: his images are more accessible now than ever, both in their themes and style and in their easy reach online.
Robert Mapplethorpe, “Man in Polyester Suit” (1980)
Look at the Pictures confirms that we can blame the commodification of his art on Mapplethorpe himself. The film portrays Mapplethorpe as an astute businessman starved for celebrity. Whether he was setting up a foundation in his name, comparing his net worth to Warhol’s, directing campy deodorant commercials, enlisting a trustworthy biographer in his final days, or taking photos of the beau monde on commission, Mapplethorpe’s work and life transmogrify on-screen, emphasizing how mercantile it became. Instead of being imbued with that original ability to shock, his art can often feel like social currency or advertising for — what, exactly? Mapplethorpe’s photographs never set out to align marginalized subjects or to contribute to any kind of social activism. Nor were his “dirty pictures” taken with ethnographic or photojournalistic intent. His priorities instead were to create a new photographic idiom, to give the general public images that they would remember, suggesting the pure perfection of body and moment.
Even today, his photographs find transgressive value in their aesthetic perfection. Their pulchritude was, and still is, each photograph’s greatest indictment. “Beauty is […] a […] contract between the beautiful being and the perceiver,” wrote Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just. “As the beautiful thing confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.” But Mapplethorpe’s images violate this contract, brandishing tradition — classicism and Catholic imagery — as a weapon against convention and life itself. Like the S&M he documented, Mapplethorpe’s photographs performed the borders of pain and pleasure, examining the vagaries of punishment and redemption.
A rekindled interest in identity politics, a pervasive nostalgia for 1970s New York grime and glamour, and a culture increasingly obsessed and empowered by its self-image allow for the perfect moment to rediscover Robert Mapplethorpe. Producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bailey and Barbato are well versed in pop culture’s adoption of LGBT vernacular. But they don’t present Mapplethorpe as a visual idiom ripe for appropriation. Instead, they situate his immortalized aesthetic of the body in the history of the artist’s own life and death.
On a Friday night during the fall of 1989, Mapplethorpe, his gracile charm replaced by a concave pallor, decided to throw a party to celebrate his 42nd birthday. The opulent soirée, held at his Manhattan loft, teemed with princesses, literati, and art-world gentry, but also men dressed in bright black leather. Like his art, the event was an agreeable coalescence of highbrow and low. Over caviar and champagne, Mapplethorpe greeted his ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances, accepting gifts and polite comments. And while technically these people were there to celebrate his birth, the event was more obviously a going-away party. He told David Croland, an early lover and model, that he had hired a biographer to more or less narrativize his life. “Keep me alive,” Mapplethorpe whispered in his ear. In the images of the party shown in the film, he sits at the head of the table like a king at his throne, his own face shockingly thin and pale. The most revelatory moments in a film filled with many are spent reflecting on these last days, when we’re given a penetrating gaze past perfection and into a human in stark contrast from the statuesque bodybuilders he exalted with his portraits.
His brother Edward, also a photographer, tearily recounts when the artist was on his deathbed, an IV torn from his bleeding arm, his body lying in shit. It’s here when Robert Mapplethorpe the avatar turns into simply Robert, and the film slips into a register of complex sentimentality. We’re led to assume that, in many ways, Mapplethorpe wanted his death to be his ultimate artistic act. Two final exhibits — one retrospective at the Whitney and The Perfect Moment — seemed to earn Mapplethorpe the fame and wealth he hungered for. An untimely feature in Vanity Fair provided a requiem for the still-living artist, describing his sickly presence at the Whitney’s opening as though he were already buried. Soon after he died, The Perfect Moment underwent its obscenity trial, and Mapplethorpe experienced a posthumous crisis of public identity, perceived as both a pioneering artist and a sexual terrorist armed with a camera, depending on who you voted for. He would have enjoyed both descriptions, judging from the testimonies of those who knew him.
Mapplethorpe’s illness had only hastened his artistic production, and it was during this time that he graced the world with what many consider his masterpiece: a self-portrait enveloped in darkness. His gaunt face appears buoyant in the black: bodiless and lambent. In the foreground is his arm outstretched, a hand enclosed around what could be a cane or a scepter adorned with a skull. Conveyed in this portrait is the dark hope Mapplethorpe evidently clung to, which would become his final antinomy: his death guaranteed his immortality.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1988)
“Photography is also an act of love,” Hervé Guibert begins Ghost Image, his memoir and love letter to the medium written shortly before his death of AIDS, two years after Mapplethorpe’s. It’s an intriguing first sentence for the implicit suspicion that we think of photography as an act of something else. Hatred, resistance, change. Did Guibert mean that photography was an act of love for the one who snaps the shutter, or, too, for those who view the image?
Look at the Pictures is bookended by the controversy in Cincinnati and with the film’s eponymous command, hinting that controversy itself — maybe even shame — is what our cultural imagination still gravitates toward when thinking of Mapplethorpe. Maybe this will change with the surfeit of new material about the artist. Maybe it won’t. Maybe Mapplethorpe’s legacy is both doomed and blessed to be shackled to controversy. The film lacks any kind of definite thesis but suggests that we can’t find out until we just look at the pictures, like Jesse Helms said. Yet tacit in Helms’s language is his own failure: he was simply looking. The film provides us with the spoils of Mapplethorpe’s work so that we can look at his photographs, but more importantly, do what the artist wanted all along, which is, of course, to see them.