PRINT September 1993

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit

EROS RULES THE world, and Robert Mapplethorpe celebrates eros. But rather than locating eros in a single, unambiguous sex, whether male or female, his photographs honor it for the multiplicity of its expressions, for its variety, for the confusions of identity it creates. For Mapplethorpe there is no passion that eros excludes, no boundaries it knows. His is a satisfied, inclusive eros, always reaching out for new life. It is inexhaustible. And it is totally without guilt over the desire to love and to be loved, without limit.

Mapplethorpe’s work has emotional tenderness as well as sex. Desire wanders freely here, without repression or inhibition. The photographs communicate the greatest possible investment in people and things. A vertiginous journey through the senses (of vision, of sexual sensation), they have an erotic exuberance that ignores the distinctions made elsewhere between love and perversion, active and passive, dominant and dominated, good and evil. Mapplethorpe moves in the spaces that make people different, attracting them to each other, and producing the extraordinary personal and sensual surprises that constitute the erotic.

As photographs, and classically structured photographS at that, Mapplethorpe’s images condense the vitality and potency of their subjects to an extreme degree. Frozen—but frozen in fullness, in dignity—his subjects no longer clash and plunge in the torrent of the senses. There is always a dialectic in these images between provocation and esthetic harmony. Consciously and unconsciously, Mapplethorpe tries to bridge the gap between opposites—order and disorder, dissent and assent, anarchy and the ideal. Similarly, he works for a vision of the human today as somewhere between woman and man, invoking an expanded sexuality that upsets traditional morals. Some have found his vision shocking, but for others, Mapplethorpe’s dislocation of erotic knowing is seductive. Something in the heart responds to a fresh idea of eros (if the heart wants love).

Upsetting prohibitions, Mapplethorpe airs repressed pleasures and offers a view of the human as infinitely various. At the same time, the esthetic of his images—his articulation of the body the equilibrium of his volumes and forms, his command of structure and repetition—make any and all types of love somehow pure and reassuring. They keep the door open to viewers who might be troubled by the work’s provocativeness but are reassured by its quality of order.

For Mapplethorpe, photography mediates between opposites just as eros does. Photography builds harmony—between the beautiful and the ugly, angel and demon, white and black, male and female, object and body. Even as it breaks taboos it is erotic, suggesting not the destruction confusions of eros but its fulfillment. One could say that transcendence—overcoming, going beyond—is an essential part of Mapplethorpe’s photographic classicism, and of his metaphysics. Announcing an eros in which opposites are lost in each other entails, in a way, an annihilation of self, a negation of one person’s power over another. Mapplethorpe always receives his subjects as partners, people and things in dialogue with him, and in his treatment of them they are neither used nor negated, they share the work, to the point where they become the beloved, and thus one with the photographer.

Sometimes Mapplethorpe’s subjects are linked, not by erotic relationship but by shared erotic “density.” Mapplethorpe finds the same, voluptuous sensuality, for example—the same “erectness”—in both the flower and the penis. The way he photographs them confuses them: bulb becomes gland, skin becomes petal, pollen becomes semen. Each flower, each penis, has a serendipitous, tender magnificence. That the one recalls the other neutralizes the innate violence of sexuality: “My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing cock. Basically it’s the same thing.”

The link between flower and penis goes back at least to Surrealism, a movement that Mapplethorpe looked at carefully. In Salvador Dalí’s painting Le Grand Masturbateur (The great masturbator, 1929), a woman with her eyes closed, as if in intense pleasure, holds her nose against a penis. She seems lost in its fragrance, even at the expense of a nearby calla lily.

Mapplethorpe is interested in the flower less as cavity or hollow than as projection in space, as tumescence. In its dilation he sees force, swelling, rising, until it withers. He notices the flower’s skin, its light, its upward reach—a growth that ends in defeat, as the penis’ ends in ejaculation. From White Longstem Flower, 1982, to Rebrun Lily, 1986, from Man in Polyester Suit, 1980, to Cock, 1986, the flower’s curve and fullness are experienced as a ripening that is also a desertion, a fulfillment that is also an ending. The flower’s swollenness has the fascination of the precarious, the momentary.

In Man in Polyester Suit, besides showing the penis’ beauty, Mapplethorpe makes an ironic statement. The penis suggests desire, but the suit is shoddy, cheap in fabric and construction. Within the open fly, the penis becomes a pistil, a floral daydream, while the trouser invokes a lilylike corolla. There may be an allusion to Dalí’s Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1930), where an old man’s member dangles from his underpants. For Mapplethorpe as for the Surrealists, the flaccid, the soft, suggests latent power, and is identified with desire. It is a promise of something to be activated. The stiff, thickened penis, on the other hand, in its hardness and solidity, is associated with aggression, and is often likened to a hand brandishing a pistol.

That this penis belongs to an African-American points to the work’s “autobiographical” element. For Mapplethorpe, the black subject is always, even to the point of obsession, an ideal empathic being, someone to love and to be loved by. His interest in black men is connected both to sex and to the esthetic pleasure of their bodies’ beauty and plasticity. Mapplethorpe’s interest in S&M is notorious, but does not extend to his photographs of African-Americans. The weapons, animal horns, and other signs of violence that appear elsewhere in his work are replaced here by inoffensive peace. A gratified serenity suffuses most of these photographs, as if they were somehow detached from the constantly self-renewing fever of desire. Literally putting black men on a pedestal, Mapplethorpe establishes them as calm sources of beauty, more perfect than flesh. His formal approach to them sets them up as ideal, as almost sacred.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs are in some ways like an elbow in the ribs; yet they are hypersensitive, and their energy springs from deep currents. Mapplethorpe knows that the passage into the “diverse” is sexual and racial, and that art must address these two conditions. And so he makes photography a means to confront the force of segregation and ghettoization, to shatter prejudice. His images of black men are vortices of energy that can sweep the viewer away. Illuminating black men as divine, Mapplethorpe opposes them to an everyday existence of mediocre conformism. In this sense they do have a certain violence—the violence of the sacred, which demands its victory over social destiny. These black figures act on repression to attack the unacceptable conditions of a society imprisoned by hypocrisy.

Germano Celant

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.