Because the Night: Robert Mapplethorpe Remembered

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By Nick Haramis , July 22, 2008

Taken at a glance, the anthurium looks fragile, as if its rawboned stem might collapse under the weight of the fleshy spike engulfed by heavy leaves which sits atop the entire thing like a crown. Robert Mapplethorpe’s camera, however, not only captures the delicacy of the flower, but also draws attention to its pulsing, yannic throb, which, along with its neoclassical beauty, elevates the near-wilting object into a work of art. It’s a still life, but there’s nothing still about it. And, despite initial appearances to the contrary, it isn’t all that far from his more recognizable photographs, the shocking ones, all of which strive for unparalleled aesthetic splendor.

Whether he fixed his eyes on orchids or bullwhips, Mapplethorpe’s interest lay in beauty rather than anthropology, and still, he proved an incomparable chronicler of New York’s thriving downtown art scene throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was a time of transition for the city, an unprecedented shift from innocence to experience brought on by the AIDS epidemic. And it’s all there, in the flowers, the portraits and the engorged penises, many of which are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Polaroids: Mapplethorpe exhibition.

He became one of the most revered and reviled photographers of the 20th century, but one gets the sense that the leap from Robert Mapplethorpe to “Robert Mapplethorpe” took hold in the summer of 1963, when the 16-year-old satyr was caught stealing gay pornography from a newsstand in Times Square. The aesthetics of gay male sexuality — and later, unflinching images of raw sex — would go on to color every period in his artistic career.

Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith in 1967. He was drinking the electric Kool-Aid. She was trudging through a terrible date. Their initial pairing was a symbiotic, if hasty solution that would define their relationship until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. They needed one another, always, but especially at the beginning of their bohemian squalor, when income was elusive, celebrity a dream.

His relationship with Smith is ambiguous, and the intimate details of their time together seem almost irrelevant. Smith, who was traveling while the interviews on the following pages were conducted, has said, “We were like two children playing together, like the brother and sister in Cocteau’s Enfant Terribles.” If there had once been a sexual relationship between the two, it was certainly over by the time Mapplethorpe met his first boyfriend, model and artist David Croland, in 1970.

After his abrupt initiation into a world of riches, populated by Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Diana Vreeland, Mapplethorpe met a much older art c collector name Sam Wagstaff, who would become his one true love. Arguably. As with many aspects of Mapplethorpe’s life, the legitimacy and sincerity of his relationship with Wagstaff has been questioned. With Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe began to embrace (and vividly document) his appetite for dirty, rough sex. It was a dark time in Mapplethorpe’s life, and many have suggested that it was his way of coming to terms with notions of spirituality, an attempt to grapple with a greater truth. Others think it was the drugs.

He was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, while at the top of his career, and was soon ravaged by the epidemic that decimated downtown New York. Wagstaff died from the disease in 1987, and two years later, Mapplethorpe followed.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs are appropriations, taking inspiration and definition from the likes of Diane Arbus, New Orleans provocateur George Dureau (who has something to say about the matter below) and Edward Weston. But they’re also much more than that, because, through his lens, Mapplethorpe set down for future generations an honest and unapologetic account of a time not soon forgotten. Here, a portrait of the man behind the camera, in fragments.

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BOB COLACELLO (former Executive Editor of Interview, Vanity Fair Special Correspondent): I first spotted Robert at a Patti Smith reading. He was standing along the wall, and he had this curly hair. He looked very angelic. I always saw him as an angelic figure, and it wasn’t until he turned devilish that I stopped hanging out with him. He was living with Patti in this ramshackle loft near the Chelsea Hotel, and they had a piece of fabric hanging from a clothesline, which acted as the wall separating his side from her side. I think they had been lovers.

JAY JOHNSON (model, twin brother of Andy Warhol’s boyfriend, Jed Johnson): I don’t know if it was a friendship, or if they had a sexual relationship. It just seemed to me that Patti and Robert were really close friends.

DAVID CROLAND (model, photographer): I had just gotten back from London, where I was modeling, and we became friends very quickly. We became boyfriends even quicker. He received his first Polaroid around 1971, I believe. And when he got it, he started experimenting with Patti and me. Working with him was easy and intimate. The erotic pictures involved a kind of role-playing at the time.

DEBBIE HARRY (musician):I had seen Robert around before I had ever been introduced to him, and always thought he was sexy. The first time I worked with him was on the roof of his old studio on the Lower East Side. I was wearing a pink racerback shirt. What I remember most was how bright the sun was up there. I could barely keep my eyes open. Robert was very soft spoken and never said much during the shoots I did with him, but this time, he kept repeating for me to open my eyes. Natural light can be very unforgiving at times, but, of course, he knew what he was doing, and it turned out to be a really beautiful photo — squinty eyes and all.

SUZANNE DONALDSON (Mapplethorpe’s former studio manager, Glamour Photo Director): I was a subject of his once. I have the photo, and I call it “Wolf Child.” I had crazy hair and makeup, and I was topless in it. It looks like I had just been rescued from the woods. It’s like he possessed me. I was staring at him, and he got me to do exactly what he wanted.

JAY JOHNSON: David Croland became his first boyfriend. After David Croland, there was John McKendry, I think. I knew John and Maxime [de la Falaise, his wife, a former Vogue food editor], and that seemed, well, I don’t know what that seemed like. I remember thinking, What is he doing?

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BOB COLACELLO: John and Maxime would send a taxi to Robert and Patti’s loft with $40 in it, so they could eat for a few days. John was in love with him and he kind of used John. Robert was a user.

DAVID CROLAND: Maybe the misconception is that he was sometimes calculating. But Robert didn’t calculate. He was very pure in his quest to have his art seen at the proper places. He was very good at meeting the people who were, I believe, inspiring to him, those who could help him present his work in the proper setting. Robert was always in search of an audience for his work. I think that the fame part was less important to him.

DOMINICK DUNNE (novelist, Vanity Fair Special Correspondent): He had about him a sense of stardom. Like some movie stars, he had a real sense about himself.

BOB COLACELLO: He was extremely capricious, arrogant, difficult and petulant. He and Andy Warhol had a very competitive relationship. Robert would always flirt with Andy’s boyfriend, Jed Johnson. He invited them to dinner and seated Jed next to him, and put Andy on the opposite side of the table. When Robert became famous, then Andy decided he liked him. When Robert had money and his photos were worth something, then Andy liked him. Robert always looked dirty, which turned Andy off. And Robert wouldn’t talk much around Andy, because, he said, “You’re so stupid, Bob. You give Andy all your ideas. Andy’s a vulture.” And Andy, well, he just thought Robert was creepy, and not very giving. And he was right. Robert was extremely self-centered and selfish.

EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE (photographer, Mapplethorpe’s brother): I was once included in a group show that Robert was also in, and he had a fit, made me change my name [to Edward Maxey]. It was almost like becoming another person. I mean, had I eventually evolved to the point where that had been my choice, well, that would have been one thing. But it was sort of forced upon me, so yeah, there’s some resentment there.

MARCUS LEATHERDALE (photographer, Mapplethorpe’s former office manager): Robert’s competitiveness finally destroyed our friendship. There was a sweet side to Robert, though, a gentle, almost vulnerable side that he didn’t show in public. I have never met anyone who was more driven in his pursuit of excellence.

GEORGE DUREAU (artist): He had at least two shows in New Orleans, and there would be dinner parties for him. I’d be sitting there, and as soon as he ate a few bites, he’d whisper to me, “We have to go.” I’d say, We can’t go now, with all these people here. And he would say to everyone, “I have to go because I don’t feel good. George will drive me home.” But we’d get in my car and he’d want to go to one of the gay bars, places where black people were singing and carrying on. I’d take him there, and he’d take one of them home.

JAY JOHNSON: The fact that Robert didn’t fit in was part of his allure. There was a group of English people, who were aristocratic and spoiled, that Robert became very involved with. He was taking a lot of drugs, although Robert was never addicted. He was very much in control, but there were definitely times when he was binging.

BOB COLACELLO: A lot of Robert’s work came out of his cocaine addiction, which was tied into his sex addiction, which was not uncommon in the 1970s. Robert could be sweet, but I found him less and less so as he became more wrapped up in his netherworld. Robert was a sadist, which irked me. And I guess that’s why I backed off. I wasn’t masochistic enough.

Patti and Robert.

EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE: My father was a white-collar, middle-class Republican, and that’s the way he intended on raising his children. Robert saw things differently. That tension was pretty prevalent, and that’s the reason Robert didn’t come home that often. My mother really suffered from it. She had a very special place in her heart for Robert. It was tough on her because she lost her connection to her son, and it had a lot to do with her husband. In the end, though, I think our parents were proud of Robert, even if my father wasn’t proud of some of the photographs he had taken. He once sent one of his co-workers to a show in New York that had the flowers and the S&M stuff. I remember my father coming home and being disgusted by what the guy had told him. He had no idea.

EVA AMURRI (actress): My mom [Susan Sarandon] and I were the “family” part of Robert’s life. He would come over for dinner, would be a sounding board on decisions about my schooling and upbringing, and was a part of most of the domestic aspects of our life in the city. My mom remembers that he was very strict and protective of me, and had surprisingly conservative opinions regarding my upbringing.

SUSAN SARANDON (actress): Robert was always very disapproving of the fact that I never married Eva’s father [Franco Amurri]. He urged me to marry him, regularly.

EVA AMURRI: I was three years old when the nude was taken. Looking back, what I find most interesting about the photograph is its ambiguity. It’s interesting what people will project onto his work — their own discomfort, mostly. My mom remembers that the actual pose was a reaction to her questions: “Do you know where your nose is? Do you know where your mouth is? Do you know where your knees are? Do you know where your vagina is?” And that’s when he took the picture.

CAROLINA HERRERA (fashion designer): Robert was soft-spoken, extremely elegant and verging on foppish, although, I must say, there was nothing feminine about him. As a friend, he was kind and considerate. He loved children and understood them — as you can see from his photographs. There was, however, nothing humble about Mapplethorpe.

DAVID CROLAND: We were together as boyfriends for three years, and then I introduced him to Sam Wagstaff. Sam saw a picture of Robert in my apartment, and asked who it was, after which I arranged for a meeting. So that’s how that happened. I was fine with it.

DOMINICK DUNNE: If Sam hadn’t been this magnificent American aristocrat who knew everyone important, I don’t think Robert would have been interested. He was a hustler at heart.

JAY JOHNSON: Sure, Sam was influential in helping Robert with his photography, but their relationship was very real. I think Robert was most happy when he was with Sam.

INGRID SISCHY (Contributing Editor Vanity Fair, USA; International Editor Vanity Fair, European editions; former Editor-in-Chief at Interview and Artforum): Sam was probably the most handsome man I had ever seen, and super charming. He didn’t necessarily look, however, like this free spirit. I think he had been in the Navy, so he had this very patrician, American look. At the end of an acquisitions committee meeting at the Museum of Modern Art, he came up to me and said, “I’d like to invite you to dinner. I have a friend I want you to meet.” The friend was Robert, who was also one of the most handsome men I’ve ever known. Robert was almost like a beautiful prowling black cat. You know when it’s dark and you can see the cat’s eyes light up? He was like that, in a black leather jacket.

PIETER ESTERSOHN (photographer): He spoke at length about his devil collection — inkwells, paperweights and sculptures. The cane he’s holding in his self-portrait when he was ill had a devil’s head on it. He also photographed himself with horns. Maybe it was meant to represent his dark side?

JAY JOHNSON: I’ve always had a very curious idea about what Robert was doing with his artwork. Some of the early stuff was filled with crucifixes. There was this real sense that he was working out his own spirituality through his work. The more sexual things became an extension of this exploration. I never found his work to be pornographic or shocking, but rather, spiritual to the extreme.

DAVID CROLAND: When I was with Robert, he never took such extreme nudes. They were much more romantic, gentler. When I look at those pictures, I look at them as compositions and don’t judge what was behind them.

INGRID SISCHY: When you look at a Mapplethorpe orchid, it’s almost like looking at an O’Keeffe painting of a flower, with the same undercurrents of sex.

CAROLINA HERRERA: My grandmother once asked me if I had seen a pornography book, in which I appear in pearls and a veiled hat. Mapplethorpe was to photography what van Dyck and Ingres were to painting. You notice the same perfection in his photographed petals and skin that you find in the voluptuous satins, velvets and flesh in these great paintings.

JAMES CRUMP (director of Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe): All photographers are derivative and few can ever claim originality, but with Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures, he came closest to marking out a territory that was uniquely his own. GEORGE DUREAU: One of the guys who worked for me used to say, “George, let’s get this out of here.” And he would hide all of my art when Robert came to visit, because he didn’t want him to see certain drawings of mine. There were so many of my things that Robert would copy. We didn’t become enemies, exactly, but we became distant. His brain would see something in my drawings, paintings and photographs, and he’d carry it back to New York because he didn’t know how to draw himself. His artwork was not very good.

INGRID SISCHY: Whether you’re talking about the flowers, the portraits or the pictures that dealt with sex and sexual identity, I think that there’s a sense of timelessness in his work. Of course that’s in the flowers. But what makes the sex pictures so brilliant is that they really speak of the time in which they were made. You look at those pictures and you know the shape of the moment in which they were created. And, to me, that’s what incredible art does. It takes us back into a moment and into a world that would not have otherwise been accessible. Like the portraits, the sex pictures and the nudes exude a kind of formalism. That’s what’s really shocking — the combination of the subject matter with this formal beauty. If they were messes, it’s almost like people would have an excuse not to look at them. But they have this perfection, this formalism, this symmetry, this understanding of beauty and this understanding of technique. He really knew how to draw you in.

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MICHAEL MUSTO (Village Voice columnist): He brought dark, dank sexuality out of the closet and became the visual poet of gay S&M. Even in his absence, he’s still moving the culture forward more than most live politicians do.

SYLVIA WOLF (curator of Polaroids: Mapplethorpe): The thing that most surprised me during my research on Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids was the curiosity and delight I saw reflected in his pictures. Robert’s spontaneous engagement with his subjects is both touching and thoroughly disarming.

JAMES CRUMP: For both Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe, the act of looking was an erotic one, tinged with possibility. During viewing sessions in Wagstaff’s One Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment, both he and Mapplethorpe would prepare themselves to receive the imagery by snorting lines of coke and smoking pot. Photographs for them were sexual objects. BOB COLACELLO: I was sharing a bedroom with Robert, with two beds, while on a trip to Bridgehampton. He started telling me about his experiences that summer, about meeting people who liked to be led around on a dog leash. He was really getting into S&M, and he started describing these practices to me. I was completely horrified and turned off, and didn’t call him again for months.

EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE: Robert was an obsessive person. I don’t mean he was trying to collect black men, but he got obsessed with the black male physique and the way it photographed.

INGRID SISCHY: During the period when Robert was photographing a lot of black models, he was having relationships with a number of them. I think he was perfectly honest and completely unashamed of the idea that he was really attracted to black men, which might sound like the perpetuation of that stereotype whereby black men are portrayed as sexual beings. But Robert was certainly no racist.

BOB COLACELLO: Robert took a photo of this fat man on his knees having his genitals tortured by two guys in leather hoods. People hate the KKK and the Nazis, but then it’s okay if liberals are doing the same thing in the West Village? I don’t get it.

PATRICK McMULLAN (nightlife photographer): It took me a long time to understand that side of his work, and the world that existed in the underbelly of New York. Like many artists, he was destroyed by the world that fascinated him. I was a little afraid of him for no actual reason.

DOMINICK DUNNE: He was sick for a long time, which puts you out of commission. He was also vain, and he knew he didn’t look good. So he sort of disappeared, and there’s a bit of mystery in dropping out of sight rather than having everyone say, “Oh, he looks terrible.”

EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE: Robert was vain. There were times when he would say, “I look so terrible. I look so thin.” But then again, he was like, “It’s time to do another self-portrait.” He wanted to document himself like that. I don’t know if he was embarrassed by his appearance, but he never sheltered himself.

INGRID SISCHY: He and I tried to give up cigarettes a few times together — both failing, by the way. Once, I think, we did succeed and we’d both stopped for a few months. Then we went out to dinner, after he had been diagnosed, and he took out a pack of cigarettes. I said, Robert, you’re smoking! And he said, “Why not?” We talked about what was going on when he was diagnosed and continued to until he became unconscious, basically. There were no things left unsaid.

DOMINICK DUNNE: I saw him five times while he was dying. He had a studio on West 23rd Street, and in the middle of the studio there was a four-poster bed. I remember him being in bed, near the very end of his life. He weighed nothing. He had pillows and sheets covering him, and he said, “Dominick, I want to take your picture.” And I said, Oh, come on. But he got out of bed, and that’s when I saw how tiny and thin and helpless he was. It was then that I really liked him. All I did was stand there and all he did was snap the photograph because everything had already been arranged for him. He got out of bed, walked to the thing and he did it. I was so fucking nervous. I thought, Please God, don’t let him die while taking my picture. JAMES CRUMP: The only time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe was at his 1988 Whitney Museum retrospective. He was sitting in a wheelchair in the corner of the gallery, voyeuristically observing the viewers’ reactions to his work. It was an eerie scene. Mapplethorpe’s deteriorating physical appearance was quite shocking in contrast to the pristine, idealized black-and-white portraits hanging on the wall. Surveying the galleries one last time, he seemed smitten with celebrity even as he edged towards death. That image has haunted me ever since.

INGRID SISCHY: I went with Robert to his Whitney retrospective. We had to take the wheelchair out of the car for him when we arrived and the paparazzi were there, and it was just horrible that they were flashing and not giving him a moment to compose himself. Robert wasn’t the first of our group to die. When Sam died, he had been with a man named Jim Nelson. Robert and I went over to their house and I remember talking about how the body was going to be picked up. Remember, those were the days when people who died of AIDS were discriminated against. We were in a cab afterwards, and he looked at me and said, “I’m next.” I said, No, you’re not, and he wasn’t. He had some time, but not enough.

EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE: I never heard Robert say anything about regret. And that was sad, a bad ending to the whole thing, because I’d hoped that he might have let down his guard. I wanted him to make an effort. I had hoped he might finally make peace with my father. But it just wasn’t in the cards. No, there were no regrets.

image Mapplethorpe, at his 1988 Whitney Museum retrospective, New York.