PRINT May 1987


THE VERY MENTION OF Robert Mapplethorpe’s name evokes powerful images and issues—the expressions on faces prepared to meet the faces that they meet, the white man’s choice of the black male as model, the woman bodybuilder, the foregrounding of the phallus, the tableau of sexual ritual in which needs are formally laid out but left unexplained. In the reactions they cause, these presentations practically divide the world. By now the compliments have all been paid, the objections voiced. They slipped quickly off our tongues. But now that we’re used to Mapplethorpe’s iconography, now that our system of shock absorbers has become more accustomed to his sensational images, maybe we can address the work as the whole body it is.

The work’s nearest parallel can perhaps be found in a letter from Marcel Proust to the Countess of Noailles, written in 1904. The “absolute beauty” of certain works of art, writes Proust, is “a kind of blending of transparent unity in which all things, having lost their appearance as things, are now lined up alongside one another and penetrated with the same light; everything can be seen through everything else and not a single word resists or escapes from this assimilation.”1 Proust seems to have hoped that the reader of his novel would find every part of it in every other part. When you go to Mapplethorpe’s studio you sense he hopes the same thing. Whatever works he has just taken, or has just reprinted, or has just shown the person who was there before, are leaning against the wall alongside one another, in a kind of kaleidoscopic existence. There is usually a mixture of nudes, portraits, and still lifes. Proust insisted that A la recherche du temps perdu was “in no sense built on reasoning.”2 Could this also be the key to the fact that we can’t hope to understand Mapplethorpe’s work if we only apply “reason” to his determination to play out every possible variation on his own repertoire of images and effects? Is the destruction of what is accepted as reason the real aim of his rule-breaking, and the source of his need to repeat definitions while working to liberate them? Like Proust’s, his endeavor involves time, identity, and memory. Violations of common beliefs, and a testing of the freedom of expression that is the artist’s license, are inevitable. So, perhaps, are lulls. Like Proust’s, Mapplethorpe’s enterprise is a lifetime’s work.

The elements of Mapplethorpe’s kaleidoscope were present as early as the late ’60s; an untitled drawing from this period shows the genesis of his approach. At first it looks abstract, a tangle of blue and green strokes in pointillist style. Gradually it becomes possible to recognize details, but details of what, exactly—a body? A blossom? A face? Though there are hints of all three, none takes precedence over the others. And in fact, flipping through Mapplethorpe’s prints and contact sheets, with their inventory of thousands of shots taken over the past two decades, one sees that in one way or another this giant body of work can be said to represent three types of genre: the nude, the still life, and the portrait. Mapplethorpe’s approach has remained consistent, as if to highlight structures, conventions, rules, roles. Movement features so little in his work that he occasionally digresses to make jokes about it—such as pictures in which a wave seems to freeze and splinter as it breaks. His pictures’ stillness, combined with their emotional distance, symmetry, and virtuoso technique, deceptively supports a view of Mapplethorpe as a formalist. Consistently, mistakenly, critics have labeled his work this way, yet his position and formalism could hardly be further apart. So far, few have pointed out that his deliberate reduction of temporal coordinates and his severe generic editing result from a conceptual agenda. In each of his elected genres, constant repetition and rotation establish gradually surfacing associations with all the others. The work reminds one of something Roland Barthes said in an interview in 1978: “I’m trying, bit by bit, to free myself from everything that is . . . imposed on me intellectually. But slowly. . . . One has to give this transformation time.”3

The approach of photography’s formalists is unitary; Mapplethorpe’s has always been strategically divided, with photography as the major part of a career that also includes sculpture, furniture, and set design. Within photography, he has also done advertising work, making images that are instantly recognizable as his at the same time that they undermine the restrictive view that serious photography should confine itself to “high” purposes. Mapplethorpe’s sculptures suggest recognizable symbols—the five-pointed star, for instance, in front of which he once had himself photographed. But the valence of those symbols falls away almost immediately, leaving only a connected set of reflective surfaces and an object that doubles as their frame. In a sense, many of the sculptures can be seen as frames, descendants of those earlier boxes in which Mapplethorpe set his own self-image, often among mirrors reflecting partial images of the viewer. All these works lead to one overwhelming suggestion: that the self exists as a changing arrangement of facets. As they remake and hold fragments of a self, they extend into real space, situate themselves midway between the sequestration of estheticism and the greater hurly-burly outside.

In romantic life, infatuation and repeated caresses serve as preludes to lovemaking. What is enacted sex, after all, but the body’s endless reminder that eternal possession can never be possible? And what is photography but a token of fleeting exchange, of a collision of desires and resistances, simultaneously a testament to a subject’s battle for self-preservation and the stuff that dreams are made on, “a kind of magic,” in the words of the novelist Michel Toumier?4 The idea of the photographic sitting, with its mysterious interplay of forces; the metaphors of theft and capture that invariably accompany talk of photography; above all, the idea of a spell to bring about a change of state—a voodoo threat or a love potion is never far away in a Mapplethorpe work.

Barthes, the theorist whose esthetic most closely resembles Mapplethorpe’s, was in the middle of a particularly complex passage in his paper “The Rhetoric of the Image” when he paused to make an interjection that could have demolished the precision of his entire argument. We must never forget the “magic” quality of the photographic image, he reminded his reader. Mapplethorpe began with a similar touchstone. Sex, he once said, is “something magic which no one properly understands.”5 Bringing those two kinds of magic together became his mission. The result exceeded the terms of the experiment: Mapplethorpe, half in and half out of the worlds of photography, art, and fashion, began to make a record of corners and pockets of life in the ’70s and ’80s, without loosing his grip on the personal exploration he had all along been pursuing, or on the search to define the terms of photography itself, a search most apparent in his continual experimentation with repetition and with different processes, scales, and framing devices. The tableau of sex is less evident in Mapplethorpe’s later pictures, but it is also less a presence in contemporary urban life than formerly (now, it is a dark shadow over everything). In any case, as Susan Sontag has pointed out,6 the sense of desire is seldom absent in any of the three basic genres—the nude, the still life, and the portrait—into which Mapplethorpe’s work breaks down: desire for celebrity, infamy, beauty, or possession, be they the sitter’s or the photographer’s.

Glimpsed self-portraits have always been a returning element in Mapplethorpe’s kaleidoscope, but it seems as though they’ve appeared more frequently in the ’80s. In an attempt to extend the reference beyond “the photographer,” he has posed as a gangster armed with a machine gun; a gentleman in evening clothes; a woman in lipstick and makeup; a punk, smoking; a demon displaying his tail, a whip inserted between his buttocks, handle first; a devil with horns. Active and passive by turns, Mapplethorpe plays at being perpetrator and victim, male and female, accepted and rejected by society. Each stance is posed, static, precisely focused, and shot from an angle level with it. Imprisonment and freedom, manners and desire, masks and what lies behind them, the sinned against and the sinning. . . . these are the terms Mapplethorpe sets out in his self-portraits, a thematic index to the larger corpus of photographs, and subject to elementary variation. A simple either-or, supported by the opposition of black and white that prevails through most of the work, is the obvious but very complex way that he breaks boundaries. Faces, bodies, flowers assume a new kind of composite identity. Expectations are violated. Models sweat before the camera, or hide their faces. Sometimes they give a sidelong glance, as if to flirt with the photographer. Sometimes they look straight at him, and through him at the viewer. Couples embrace or perform sexual acts for the camera. Some are heterosexual, some homosexual. And each time that cool style and direct approach come into play, the finished work takes its place alongside the flower arrangements and polite sittings.

Implicit in all this is cross-referencing, an erosion of boundaries and definitions. Some are easier to accept than others: shock at the look of graphite on the flexed muscles of a woman bodybuilder, or at the tough ease with which a boy wears a skirt, is likely to be short-lived or nonexistent for many contemporary viewers. Harder to tolerate is the easy passage from, say, flowers to people. We accept that flowers are placed in pots, but what are we to make of an event such as the pose of a nude male on a pedestal, like an object? Counterbalancing the celebrities—the titled, gifted, rich, or famous—and the texture of flowers in Mapplethorpe’s photographs is a procession of comparatively unknown young men, often black, whose relationship to the photographer and to the web of other sitters brings up issues of power, of master and slave. This is the aspect of the work that has bothered viewers more than any other: the black man posed as an object, a person who serves the purposes of another.

The question arises: Do Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic representations lead him to reinstate racial and sexual stereotypes and so degrade his subjects? The photographer has a question of his own: What would render a naked man in an artist’s studio obscene? The fetishization of the penis, comes the reply—the reduction of the man to his sex at the expense of every other characteristic of his person, in an intensification of a process that happens all the time in pictures of women. Mapplethorpe forces the issue, forces us to see our codes, especially in a picture where he photographs the middle body of a dressed black male, his penis exposed, his face unseen. The result, Man in Polyester Suit, 1980, has become a cause célèbre The power of the image has as much to do with the clothing as with the penis; the suit frames the bare skin, and frames are essential to the meanings of images. The inexpensive fabric tells us something about the man. The photograph is by no means a documentary one—it was set up and taken in a studio. In fact, it is a portrait of a kind, even though it cuts out the face. It crosses the frontier between the private or at least solipsistic rumination on pictures expected by the viewer of pornography and the public display that art takes for granted, between objectification of its model and revelation of the model’s subjectivity.

Seen in a public gallery, Man in Polyester Suit functions the way a great Andy Warhol painting does—by unleashing a train of reactions in the viewer without committing the artist to a single statement. Mapplethorpe’s relation to Warhol includes an ability to mirror the desires and prejudices of his spectators, to make them see what they do not want to see. Racist stereotypes are not easily banished. Causing trouble with them is a way of testing how much they are founded on attraction or shame, as well as how much they still exist. In Mapplethorpe’s agenda it is even more than this: as the nebula of images whirls, forming and reforming as it goes, that revolution causes a new feeling in the viewer, implying a devaluation, a dematerialization, of the awful mechanisms of stereotype that make the world go round. And the role of the artist himself may be simply to service the machine he has created, and to note the changing taxonomies as they pass. By stages, the overriding theme of Mapplethorpe’s work has become clear. It is power—power of beauty, social power, physical power, power of images . . . detectable more in undertones than in grand issues. Consciously or not, this is the center to which he has slowly been drawn. The tension in these prismatic images about power is the way meaning shifts and changes until, say, servant becomes master, and master, servant. In one telltale picture a slim black male poses nude on a piece of machinery, holding a steering wheel as elegant and formal as a Charles Sheeler train wheel—but this wheel is useless, part of a dialogue about work and no work that could be construed either as a parody of liberty or, just as easily, as a serious attempt to revise the ’30s image of the heroic proletarian. The picture comes to rest halfway between each possibility: as an embarrassing piece of history and current fact, or as a homage to the unsung worker, or perhaps as an esthete’s jibe at the hollow machine known as employment, or perhaps as a commentary on unemployment.

Mapplethorpe identified his motivating impulse in an early boxed collage of ca. 1970 consisting of a bulging crotch made simply out of men’s socks and underwear. “The image is to reality as clothes are to skin,” the proposition runs; we see images all the time, but rarely what lies beneath them. It would be hard to find a clearer definition of the heart of Mapplethorpe’s art. Early on, readymade ripped-out images from mass culture served as grounds for his iconography: F. Scott Fitzgerald, with parted hair and ruby lips; a reproduction in which one man brandishes a whip while another kneels before him. In each case a picture from a magazine was removed, colored, framed, enshrined, made into an icon. Yet a kind of iconoclasm was also already at work, since the image underwent alteration from its original use, even harsh treatment. Precious yet repeatable, these photographs, as well as many that followed over the years, and the state they engender touch on an idea of Sigmund Freud’s: fetishism is the constant repetition of a circumstance accompanied by the refusal to believe that it is ever the case. Creative and destructive, fetishism finds a perfect correlative in the photograph, with its status as surrogate object.

The succession of images and partial images replaced the strict unity of the individual image so long ago in Mapplethorpe’s photography that the work seems generated automatically, by a process of constant rearrangement. “I don’t like the idea of a unitary subject,” said Barthes, “I prefer the play of the kaleidoscope.”7 In addition to his autocannibalism, in addition to his quotations from the general culture, Mapplethorpe’s kaleidoscope play recalls the images of “art photography.” This or that fragment of a posed behind resembles an Edward Weston pepper. That standing nude, his back bisected into dark and light verticals, looks a lot like a George Platt Lynes. But neither found photographs nor direct reference to them is at issue here Instead, Mapplethorpe intuitively returns to existing classics. Redirecting them to suit his needs, he makes photographs that are his and only his. The frame within a frame produces a coincidence of depth and decor, fullness and emptiness, and ultimately a zero degree of citation. Scrutinizing one variation of an image after another as they pass before him, he uses the camera to detain each of them in turn. By recording the things that mean most to him he may be able to keep them, be closer to them, or summon them when they are absent or needed. Pursuing his ritual, he makes more and more photographs. As he returns time and time again to his nudes and flowers and portraits, a critical path can be found. John Berger once wrote that the camera looked up to kings and down on paupers. Significantly, Mapplethorpe’s level gaze avoids this. His visual democracy suggests a new space, where meanings can proliferate endlessly and change in time.

In 16th-century England, the verb “fashion” gained currency as a description of the deliberate formation of the self, the concept with which an individual governed his own behavior. If there could be a perspective that would treat photography in general as a means of interaction with society, then the prolonged meditation on his practice that Mapplethorpe offers might appear in quite a different light, as private notes for what in previous centuries would have been interpreted as the making of a courtier, a thoroughly rounded person practicing different arts with ease and able to present himself perfectly in any company. In this sense Mapplethorpe can be seen as employing his photographs as records of social acts, as a means of gaining access to others, of doubling back, of unmaking certainties, and, not least, of engaging with all the things that he’s not, as well as with what society considers alien. The artist exists somewhere between the society of the recognized with whom he seeks to open negotiations and the unrecognized to whom he pays court. He dramatizes his dilemma as the constant return to the images that hold a magic for him, a revolution carried out by means of objects of art, doubling as tokens in a continuing tussle of gain and loss. The kaleidoscope shifts from the image of a courtier, the person who can turn his talents and desires to all kinds of ends, shifts from the conception of Mapplethorpe as a kind of contemporary Lewis Carroll, to an entirely different image—Mapplethorpe in the tradition of Paul Nadar, the photographer as worker, as someone fully involved with the facts of his times. Metaphors of both apply equally to Mapplethorpe’s career, a blend of self-dramatization and self-evaluation worthy of a modern-day Renaissance man. At any given moment the fragments of the work and of his self are in play like the changing elements in a kaleidoscope.

Stuart Morgan contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Quoted in Leo Bersani, Marcel Proust: The Fiction of Life and Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 221.

2 Ibid, p. 213.

3. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980, tr. Linda Coverdale, New York: Hill and Wang, 1985, p 311.

4. Michel Tourrner, The Erl-King, London: Methuen, 1963, pp. 93-94.

5. Quoted in Sam Wagstaff, untitled text in Robert Mapplethorpe, ed. Peter Weiermair, Frankfurt: Peter Weiermair/Frankfurter Kunstverein,
1981, exhibition catalogue, n.p.

6. Susan Sontag, “Certain Mapplethorpes” in Robert Mapplethorpe Certain People: A Book of Portraits, Pasadena: Twelvetrees Press, 1985, n.p.

7. Barthes. p. 204.