PRINT May 1997


Robert Mapplethorpe for Helmut Lang

I HAVE BEEN TRYING to remember what kind of jeans Robert Mapplethorpe wore and if they were really tight and tidy or kind of droopy and in need of a wash. Easy to picture him in black leather pants or chaps, harder to remember him in blue jeans. Roland Barthes was fond of Mapplethorpe’s 1976 portrait of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in which they both wear jeans, Glass’ pair comfortably faded, Wilson’s darker and newer. In Camera Lucida, Barthes wrote: “The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: ‘Technique,’ ‘Reality,’ ‘Reportage,’ ‘Art,’ etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.” Mapplethorpe certainly never wore Helmut Lang jeans, but for the new line’s ad campaign, Lang has withdrawn several of Mapplethorpe’s photographs from their usual blah-blah. What rises of its own accord is a young man smiling, gleefully.

Men never used to smile in fashion ads; maybe if they were doing something—scoring a touchdown, conquering someone, discovering a new tax loophole—but never while doing nothing. What startles the viewer encountering Lang’s spread, the two-page opening showing a young and available Mapplethorpe stretching out his arm, his torso nude, his armpit and nipple revealed, is the smile and its glee (the appearance of Kirsten Owen and Keso Dekker, a tattered American flag, and early sculptural assemblages of hearts, daggers, and old underwear does nothing to alter this shock). Mapplethorpe has previously not equaled smile but rather menace, depravity, or winnowing sickness. Some of those things still circulate around him, but the glee repels them with an apotropaic force.

It hasn’t been necessary for some time now to show the product for advertising to “work,” and no one bats an eye when they see celebrities hawking items they have apparently little connection to. What does Michael Jordan know about cologne? Or take Prada’s new ads with Joaquin Phoenix. My guess is more people know who Miuccia Prada is than recognize Joaquin Phoenix in the Prada ads, sultry and odd and articulating little other than the strangeness of being him and a sadness that sometimes passes for sexual availability. Is seeing a photo of him different from seeing a smiling Robert Mapplethorpe and “art” by him for Lang? Since in some outlays it is not until the last page of the spread that any Lang clothing appears, yes; in that “art” and “advertising” are being confused, not really; in that the product being sold—mood? sex? frocks? all of that?—remains obscure, no.

The Mapplethorpe photos are juxtaposed with new shots by Bruce Weber, portraits of Owen for Lang’s pret-à-porter and model Rainer P. for the jeans line (for its debut Lang mixed all the “registers” up). It’s not just odd to see Weber’s work aligned with Mapplethorpe’s, since Weber has never been as frontal as Mapplethorpe in depicting his desires, it’s historically canny. Weber’s most innovative—if derided—work has been for Calvin Klein, particularly for his jeans and underwear lines in the early ’80s, the first use of erotic shots of men to sell things to men (and the “wives” who buy things for them). If Klein has recently borrowed design ideas from Lang, then Lang’s campaign is equally indebted to Klein. Lang’s ads have always been delightfully obtuse, quirkily artful—his smiling, dumpy caped crusader (photographed by Juergen Teller) advertised what, capes? dimples? What Lang learned from Klein is that the power of an ad has little to do with “fashion” or “art” but with the obtuse, unruly nature of the photograph, which even at its most artificial retains an unseemly bit of “reality”—what most people don’t want from fashion or from anything else but which may slow them down just enough for some kind of transaction.

Vogue Hommes quoted Lang saying, “I think fashion is about identification, it is another language we use to interpret ourselves.” That may be what fashion is, but a fashion ad is something else. In that same issue of Vogue Hommes, the last page of Lang’s ad has twenty-one Polaroid snaps of Rainer P. being fitted in Langwear. In most, he’s stern or wearing a blank expression, but in one dazzler, he smiles, donning black leather jeans and a white muscle-T with a picture of Jesus on it. He smiles not because he’s interpreted once and for all who he is but in spite of every interpretation that would seem to make the smile impossible. The fashion is his smiling.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor for Artforum based in LA.