By Patricia Morrisroe
Random House New York 1995 461 pages
I have always been a fan of photography and, in a marginal way, ever since college, Robert Mapplethorpe was on my radar. Somehow over the years his daring imagery made an impression and I was drawn to the macabre and fringes like the artist. I was interested to know more about him and a biography was just the thing. Yet, the more I read the less I liked the artist. I haven’t read many biographies, so I suppose I just presumed that, in the main, they highlighted the more lovable aspects of their subjects. This was a no-holes-barred type study that slowly but surely revealed a person I would never want to know. Mapplethorpe only cared about fame, period. Well, fame and fucking. Okay: fame, fucking and drugs…perhaps in that order. If those are the top three things you care about, imagine what you will do to get them. Mapplethorpe did them all. He used people in every way imaginable while being an asshole prick all the while. While reading the last half of the book I was audibly huffing and puffing every time he would make a dick move. Once, I was reading in bed while my husband was going through his pre-bed toilet and I said, “Man…this guy is just an asshole.” By the time my husband finished brushing his teeth I said, “He’s made five more dick moves since you’ve been in there.” It’s kind of a bummer when your gods are burned, but in this case he ended up burning himself. All his excess led to a slow death from AIDS.
“Mapplethorpe’s artistic credo had always been to ‘see things like they’ve never been seen before’” (4). “…the fascination of the abomination” (7).
Part One: Dark Secrets
“Robert Michael Mapplethorpe was born on November 4, 1946” (13).
“What Robert liked best, however, was the freak displays, where ‘ape girls,’ bearded women, tattooed men, snake charmers, and dwarves were hidden away in dark booths. His older sister, Nancy, was terrified of them, but Robert always wanted to peek inside and was frustrated by his grandmother’s efforts to keep him away. ‘There’s nothing worse than wanting to see something and having someone stop you,’ he said. The freaks became symbols to him of all things strange and forbidden, and while he would not pursue them as vigilantly as Diane Arbus did in her photographs, they would crop up in different guises in Mapplethorpe’s pictures. By identifying the Catholic Church and Coney Island as the two most vivid memories of his childhood, he was touching upon the essential drama of his photographs–the push-pull between the sacred and the profane that was to give his work what he called an ‘edge’” (18).
“Up until now, Robert’s vision of art had been limited to the iconography of the Catholic Church–the madonnas and Christ figures to whom he directed his prayers. His trips to the museums added another dimension, and he began drawing Cubist madonnas, inspired by Picasso. ‘These were not beautiful Botticelli-type madonnas,’ said Cassidy, ‘but grotesque creatures with split profiles. I guess they were religious in that they were madonnas, but there was something disturbing about the way he had broken up their faces’” (21).
“His lunch hours were spent at Times Square, where, after a hot dog at Nathan’s, he would got to Hubert’s Freak Museum to feast his eyes on such human curiosities as Sealo the Seal Boy, whose hands grew out of his shoulders; a hermaphrodite named Alberto Alberta; and Congo the Jungle Creep, a Haitian in a fright wig who performed voodoo rituals. Diane Arbus found many of her subjects at Hubert’s, but Robert lost interest in the freaks after he spotted a gay pornographic magazine in a store on Forty-second Street” (26).
“They led the overwrought pledges into another room, where they had devised a variety of different tests, many of which evoked the rituals of gay sadomasochistic sex. The Pershing Rifles were regarded as an elite military unit, and their stylish uniforms played into the fantasy of the master-slave scenario. In this case the ‘masters’ stripped the pledges naked, blinded them with sanitary napkins, and commanded them to perform close-order drill with their bayonets. Subsequently they bound the pledges’ penises with one end of a rope, then attached bricks to the other end and ordered them to hurl the brick across the room. Next the pledges were ordered to crawl into a bathroom on their hands and knees; they were told to eat excrement from a toilet bowl–it turned out to be mashed bananas and chunky peanut butter. Mapplethorpe later confided to Patti Smith that someone had also inserted the tip of a rifle into his rectum” (31).
“He preferred the art of self-presentation to self-analysis…”
[Margin note: Not “writing what he knows”] “Mapplethorpe was aware of Warhol’s growing reputation as a pop provocateur, and he had already targeted the elusive artist as ‘someone who knew what he was doing.’ Mapplethorpe’s attraction both to Warhol and to the Pershing Rifles was an early indication of how he would later take a ‘cool’ approach to his militaristic S&M imagery, but at Pratt he was still too intimidated by his own instincts to allow his creativity free rein” (32).
[The monkey skull story] “Scratch’s brief and bizarre history encapsulated many of the major themes of Mapplethorpe’s adult life–his preoccupation with images of death and violence; his fascination with the devil; his desire to transform the ugly, or freakish, into works of beauty. It also pointed to a darker side of his nature, which would later emerge in his sexual relationships with other men–a need to break all the rules and transgress taboos.”
“…his LSD flowers have more in common with Walt Disney’s Fantasia, but his benign, giddy view of nature was perhaps reflective of his belief that LSD had provided him with the ability to lose himself in a guilt-free sensory experience. And since he felt guilty about so many aspects of his life, drugs temporarily solved his moral dilemma.
“For the next twenty years Mapplethorpe would use drugs almost daily–marijuana, amphetamines, Quaaludes, acid, MDA, cocaine, and amyl nitrite; they became an integral part of his sexual experimentation, for they helped blur the distinction between pleasure and pain and allowed him to silence his internal censors. He found that drugs enhanced his creativity, too, and from that time on, he would never put pencil to paper–or later take a picture–without first getting stoned.
“Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Reader became Mapplethorpe’s new bible, and instead of going to church he attended Leary’s “Celebrations” of the League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) at the Village Theater on Second Avenue in Manhattan, which featured multimedia light shows and guest speakers such as LeRoi Jones and Allen Ginsberg.
“From living at home, to sharing an apartment with two army men and a studio with a monkey, Mapplethorpe settled into a brownstone on St. James Place, with was described by one occupant as a ‘psychedelic Animal House.’ The parquet floors were strewn with mattresses and drug paraphernalia, and hanging from the top of the mahogany staircase was an upside-down Christmas tree decorated with rubber chickens. ‘Everybody was doing so many drugs that the place had a real hallucinatory quality,’ said Claude Alverson, an interior-design major who lived on the top floor. The tenant devised a grotesque game called ‘Creative Kill,’ for which they were obliged to record on a kitchen clipboard the dates and ‘creative’ ways they exterminated the resident cockroaches. Visitors recalled seeing bugs impaled on safety pins and dangling from tiny nooses made of dental floss.
“Acid-inspired art was becoming so common at Pratt that teachers could often tell the exact moment a student had discovered drugs. Mapplethorpe’s drawings, for example, became more obsessive and detailed, and after taking LSD he would retreat to the brownstone’s garden, where he would spend five or six hours drawing a single leaf, or covering a piece of paper with his signature or thousands of colored dots. He shared a bedroom with Harry McCue, and although McCue refrained from taking drugs, he, too, was enthusiastic about the idea of being a psychedelic artist’. They searched for inspiration in the dreamlike eroticism of Hieronymus Bosch and Egon Schiele, and in photographs by the German surrealist Hans Bellmer, know for his unnerving images of dismembered dolls. They came to the conclusion that they would never be able to produce such graphically disturbing work unless they rid themselves of their traditional Catholic morality and embraced life at its most extreme.
“Mapplethorpe picked Andy Warhol to be his role model; the artist had created an antichurch within the Factory, his silver-walled studio on West Forty-seventh Street, where his followers–many of who, like Warhol, had been raised Catholic–were involved in exploitative sexual games that hinged on a need to confess their sins and seek absolution for them. Their outlandish and pathetic antics had recently been documented in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which Mapplethorpe had found ‘terrifying’ in the way its stars willingly descended into drug-induced paranoia and self-hatred. Clearly, Warhol was more Satan than saint, and after seeing the movie Mapplethorpe was further convinced that exploring the dark side would incite his imagination. He vowed that when he moved to Manhattan after graduation he would find Warhol, and perhaps befriend him.
“‘We wanted the power of Satan,’ McCue said, ‘so we tried to seek out people and situations through which we could get in touch with him.’ Some of their efforts were almost laughably juvenile, as in the time they bought a goat’s head from a butcher’s shop and, encircling it with candles, attempted to raise the devil himself. They targeted blacks and homosexuals as two groups with intimate ties to Satan, and they made a concerted effort to socialize with Bioletta and Rosita Cruz, whom Mapplethorpe was convinced knew voodoo witchcraft; they also visited Greenwich Village for the purpose of staring at homosexuals in order to bask in their malevolent aura.
“On one occasion McCue purchased a pirat’s shirt from a shop that catered to gay men, and although Mapplethorpe teased him about looking like a homosexual, he bought the same shirt the following week. It was all done in the spirit of ‘exploring the weird,’ as McCue described it, but given Mapplethorpe’s attraction to men, his motivations seem far more complicated. As with the Columbian Squires jacket and the Pershing Rifles uniform, he used clothing to forge an identity for himself, and with the pirate shirt he could play at being gay–for art’s sake.
“Mapplethorpe’s wardrobe at the time revealed a psychologically divided man; switching back and forth between a magician’s cape, a ‘homosexual’ shirt, and an ROTC uniform, he was still at war eith himself. That spring, the growing tension between Pratt’s art students and the engineers–’North Prattnam versus South Prattnam,’ as the school’s newspaper described them–would force Mapplethorpe to choose between the two uniforms.
“The engineering students largely comprised ROTC, and as the antiwar sentiment grew at Pratt, the army–and the engineers–were targeted as the enemy.” [margin note: turning point] “On April 15, 1967, fifty students from ‘Pratt Action for Peace’ joined 125,000 protesters in Central Park, and roused by the demonstration, they staged a sit-down four days later, to denounce the presence of a visiting army colonel on campus. Trapped inside the athletic hall along with the ROTC cadets, the colonel eventually escaped through the back entrance, leaving Robert and his regiment to face the 150 demonstrators who waved signs that read WAR IS HELL and USE YOUR BRAINS NOT YOUR GUNS. Mapplethorpe was booed and hissed by members of his own art department, and soon afterward he began soliciting advice from friends on how to fail his upcoming army physical. They suggested everything from puncturing an eardrum to mangling a leg, but Mapplethoorpe eventually opted to swallow a tab of acid before traveling to the army’s induction center on Whitehall Street. By the time he submitted to his physical, he appeared so psychotic the doctor deemed him unfit to serve.
“Escaping the army was Mapplethorpe’s last hurdle to freedom. No longer obligated to keep his hair clipped short, he let it grow past his collarbone. He had always toned down his outfits before he visited Floral Park, but he could not hide his hair; when his father saw it, he flew into a rage. Fathers across America were engaged in similar battles with their long-haired sons, but in this case Harry’s contempt was fueled by his growing suspicion that Robert was homosexual. Why else, Harry wondered, would his son have been rejected from the army? ‘You look like a girl,’ he shouted. ‘You make me sick.’
“In addition, Harry was infuriated by Robert’s latest revelation that he would not be graduating with the class of ‘67, for, having switched majors, he was now a semester behind. Harry had warned his son that he would pay for only four years of college, and true to his word, he refused to give Robert an extra penny. It was not a totally unreasonable position; Harry still had three children to educate on his modest salary. But Robert had failed to make any contingency plans, and he drifted through the rest of the semester in a druggy haze. Same Alexander, who had taught Robert typographic design several years earlier, recalled that Mapplethorpe stumbled into one of Alexander’s evening workshop classes and passed out on the floor. ‘He wasn’t even enrolled in the class,’ Alexander said, ‘but he stood there by the door, then he just fell. I caught him and put him in a chair. He was totally blotto’” (42-6).
“‘When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God,’ he once scribbled in Smith’s notebook. She sparked his interest in the occult, and he often accompanied her to Samuel Weiser’s bookstore on Astor Place to buy manuals on witchcraft and astrology. She read the books while he studied the pictures, and he began to fashion an aesthetic that combined Catholic and occult symbols. His favorite motif was the pentagram, a five-pointed ‘magical’ star that would reappear again and again in his sculptures and photographs” (53).
“‘Nineteen sixty-eight had the vibrations of an earthquake about it,’ reported Time magazine. ‘America shuddered. History cracked open: bats came flapping out, dark surprises’” (56).
“‘Robert and Patti had gotten into a fight,’ Michels explained, and ‘Robert had hung the wolf.’ The next time Michels visited Smith, she sat in a corner muttering an incantation, and as her voice grew louder and the words more jumbled, a strange black cat pounced on the windowsill and entered the room. ‘It was like a death cat from Hell,’ Michels said. ‘I totally freaked.’ Michels made a swift retreat from Smith, and their relationship ended on that bizarre note.
Part Two: Patron Saints
“Mapplethorpe’s exposure to the Dionysian atmosphere of Max’s had made him even more determined to use gay pornography in his art, and he began searching through Times Squarre bookstores for old copies of gay magazines in order to understand the conventions of homosexual erotica. In the late forties, muscle and fitness publications such as Grecian Guild Pictorial and Physique Pictorial had begun to include photographs and drawings aimed at a growing gay readership, and the models, posed in bathing suits and loincloths, personified the idealized man. George Quaintance, an American illustrator and painter, contributed to Physique Pictorial, and before his death in 1957 he produced a series of pictures os naked cowboys and sailors who projected the all-American athleticism of Johnny Weissmuller. It was the Finnish-born artist Tom of Finland, however, who pointed to a new homoeroticism that was more overtly sexual. Aroused by this memories of German soldiers during World War II, he created drawings of men in black leather jackets, motorcycle caps, and knee-high leather boots that centered on the ‘butch’ male. It was an image that would become more and more visible as the growing gay rights movement helped erase the prevailing ‘camp’ behvioral style, by which some men adopted feminine mannerisms. Instead, gay activist advanced the notion that a man could be both gay and virile, which served to focus attention on the previously hidden S&M subculture, where men in leather bars enacted complicated master-slave scenarios that tested one’s masculinity” (72-3).
“Throughout the summer Smith had been giving impromptu poetry readings at the Chelsea, and using her raspy voice to accentuate the rhythm of the words, she was unconsciously edging her way toward a career in music. Certainly she could not have failed to notice the sudden prominence of rock and roll at Max’s Kansas City, where the Velvet Underground performed five nights a week, thereby paving the way for the emergence of a local New York band scene. Encouraged by the success of the Velvet Underground, Mickey Ruskin opened a cabaret on the second floor and helped launch the careers of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Eventually the musicians began to outnumber the artists, as Max’s evolved from an art scene to a music scene” (90-1).
Colta [what a cool name]
Part Three: Sex and Magic
“At the beginning, though, punk didn’t have such an extreme connotation; in fact, when Patti Smith and her band played an eight-week engagement at CBGB in the spring of 1975, the term ‘punk rock’ wasn’t even being used to define the emerging sound. ‘I think all the groups had one similarity in that we wanted to elevate the idea of rock while still trying to keep it simple,’ Smith said. ‘It was a real reaction against disco music and the glitter-rock thing. Our lyrics were much more sophisticated, and we weren’t into artifice at all. The whole punk phenomenon in England was much more reactionary and more ‘high style.’ We didn’t comb our hair not because we were making a political statement, but because we just didn’t comb our hair.’ Smith has often been credited with initiating the trend for ripped or shredded clothing, as she mutilated her T-shirts because she often felt ‘claustrophobic’ in them. Other performers embellished the ‘ripped’ style by piecing their clothing together again with safety pins, and later borrowing the accessories of the S&M subculture, to which punk owed a debt in its outlaw mentality and fascination with extremes. Such was the connection between music and sex that malcolm McLaren even owned a shop in London called SEX, which sold leather and bondage gear to both hardcore enthusiasts and artists alike. The shop was co-owned by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who summed up the prevailing ethos: ‘We’re totally committed to what we’re doing and our message is simple. We want you to live out your wildest fantasies to the hilt’” (154-5).
“Years later, when Rolling Stone composed a list of “The 100 Greatest Album Covers of All Time,” Horses ranked twenty-sixth. The stark black-and-white imagery provided a dramatic contrast to the psychedelic palette of most seventies rock albums, and Smith’s swaggering unisex pose radically altered the prevailing feminine stereotype of ‘girl singers.’ ‘I saw Horses in a record store in Australia,’ said art critic Paul Taylor, who died of AIDS in 1992, ‘and immediately fell in love with the picture. I didn’t know anything about Patti Smith or about punk, but I bought the album on the strength of the photograph. It was elegant and totally modern, and I remember looking at the photo credit and wondering, ‘Who is Robert Mapplethorp?’”
“But Studio 54 was more for socializing…[whereas] Mineshaft, [was] a hardcore ‘leather environment’” (189). “‘The scene at the Mineshaft was not about conversation.’”
“Nick…menacing demeanor of a pit bull, and his swarthy face, with its dark brows and black eyes, was made even more ominous by the flaming skull tattoo on his forehead” (190-1).
“Do it for Satan” (192).
“Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, who, during the thirties and forties, documented the seamy underside of New York’s nightlife” (204).
“Mapplethorpe was loath to be labeled a ‘gay artist,’ yet his rise to prominence paralleled the acceptance and assimilation of a gay aesthetic into the cultural mainstream. Frank Rich, in a 1987 essay for Esquire entitled ‘The Gay Decades,’ delineated nine episodes in ‘the homosexualization of America.’ These included Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band; the rise of Bette Midler and her campy bathhouse sensibility; rock music’s ‘merchandizing of androgyny’; the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 resolution that homosexuality should no longer be classified as a psychiatric disorder; and Studio 54’s institutionalization of gay chic. The gay rights and women’s movements helped liberate the male nude; women could now look at photographs of naked men in magazines such as Playgirl, thereby blurring the lines between ‘the sex that looks,’ as art scholar Margaret Walters defined the traditional male voyeuristic pose, and ‘the sex that is looked at.’ George Stambolian, who taught a course in the male nude at Wellesley College, explained: ‘For years the male nude was repressed, and when one spoke about ‘the nude,’ one usually meant the female nude. But in the late seventies, all that began to change. The Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery did a major survey on the male nude that included works by both male and female photographers, and that inspired a lot of debate about the sexist notions we held about male nudes versus female ones–mean having to project a powerful image, women passive and powerless.’”
“In contrast, Mapplethorpe was working at a time when many gay photographers were using their pictures to express both their public and private selves. Both Arthur Tress and Duane Michals analyzed their homosexuality through dreamlike images that borrowed from surrealism and Jungian psychology; Robert Giard took pictures of nude models in ordinary domestic settings, such as in the bathtub or reading the newspaper; Jimmy DeSana photographed S&M scenes in a crude, confrontational way that was the exact opposite of Robert’s cool classicism; and Peter Jujar expressed his melancholy vision of the world through moody pictures of friends and lovers” (216).
“…framing had always been an integral part of his art” (218).
“STill, she might not have removed herself so quickly from the ‘vicious game’ had she not become involved with a man who roused her fantasies of unconditional love like no other boyfriend before him. Fred (Sonic) Smith had been the rhythm guitarist for the MC5, the Detroit-based group managed by White Panther leader John Sinclair. The ‘Five,’ as they were known, were expected to take his convoluted message of rock, dope, and armed self-defense to the airwaves. Sinclair had established a commune in Ann Arbor–’Trans-Love Energies’–where the band lived in an eighteen-room house with a group of women who, according to Rolling Stone, provided the ‘domestic energies’ by cooking, cleaning, and sewing their clothing. ‘It was an astonishing thing,’ said Danny Fields, who had once promoted the MC5, ‘because here was this band preaching liberation of all aspects of humanity, of the races, of the sexes, of everything. Then the men would come back from a concert, and they’d sit at a table chomping on spareribs, and the women would be in the kitchen scurrying around. The women didn’t eat with the men, except for John Sinclair’s wife, who had gone to school and was tough. But the others were these little pansy types in flowered hippie dresses just cooking and serving their men. I don’t know if Fred was married then, but they all had ‘women.’ You couldn’t tell one from the other. They were like nonpeople’” (221).
Part Four: Blacks and Whites
[margin note: racism]
“Photographic images of the black male nude, however, were relatively rare. Of the 134 images in Constance Sullivan’s Nude: Photographs 1850-1980, the black male is not represented at all. Given the taboo against male nudity in general, white heterosexuals were not inclined to celebrate the erotic properties of the black male body. And since blacks rarely had the financial resources to become art photographers, it was left to gay white men to present their vision of the black male nude” (237).
“It was a dramatic reversal from the days of Max’s Kansas City, where famous artists had traded their work for a bar tab. But Max’s had been replaced as an artists’ hangout by the elegant Mr. Chow’s on the Upper East Side, and the art stars of the eighties were not reclusive intellectuals, but people such as Keith Haring, who would later open a shop that sold T-shirts, shoelaces, and wallpaper that featured his trademark doodle designs” (285).
“…a Warhol silkscreen portrait of Mapplethorpe himself” (297).
Part Five: the Perfect Moment
“…and certainly one of the most macabre images was the photograph he took of a human skull. It was, for him, the purest sculptural image of all; neither hair nor flesh spoiled its clean lines, and everything, literally , was stripped to the bone.
“He had been drawn to skull imagery from the time he first turned his pet monkey, Scratch, into a musical instrument, but never before had he used the death’s head symbol to make such a powerful statement about the terrifying process of bodily decay. He returned to the same theme in a more personal way with Self Portrait, 1988, one of his finest photographs, and certainly the most intimate. At first he had only intended to take a picture of one of his walking canes, which had a carved skull at the top, but while Ed Maxey and Brian English were busy setting up the shot, he suddenly disappeared into the bedroom and emerged, five minutes later, in a black turtleneck. He knew that by dressing in black the body could be made to appear almost invisible–he had used the same technique to great effect in his portraits of Doris Saatchi and Roy Cohn. Intuitively, Ed understood what Robert was trying to do, and as he photographed his brother, he focused the camera on the hand holding the skull cane, leaving Robert’s blurred face to drift into the darkness” (335).
Chronology of the “Perfect Moment” Controversy
“The AFA targeted a New York artist named Andres Serrano, whose Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix submerged in a yellow liquid, had been exhibited several months earlier at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. (Serrano described Piss Christ as a protest against the commercialization of sacred imagery.)
[I had always mistakenly associated Piss Christ with Mapplethorpe]