PRINT April 2003


1988: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self-Portraits

BACK IN THE EARLY ’80s, AIDS seemed as much rumor as reality; I can remember going to parties and hearing scattered complaints of strange, unpleasant symptoms that were terrifyingly resistant to diagnosis. Soon, however, a plague lurched into view, and its profile was monstrous. There was the implicit understanding that the virus was targeting (or, for the conspiracy minded, targeted at) the urban gay male community. Adding to the horror of a seemingly unstoppable disease was the toothy satisfaction of the Christian Right that the wicked were receiving their biblical due. With remarkable dispatch, the AIDS pandemic came to dominate the sociosexual identity of the United States. In the arts, the toll was all too quickly visible and AIDS research became the cause du jour. The disease also activated the queer art community (gay suddenly sounded too passive); ACT UP attracted—and created—artists, while Gran Fury emerged as the decade’s epic art collective.

Today, a lot of what remains of the creative anger and energy of the ’80s is valued principally as archival material; the AIDS-responsive culture of the period—paintings and poems, novels and dramas, theatrical films and made-for-television movies—is now only so much documentary evidence. The gravity of loss and nobility of endurance that once galvanized gay America seem very far away, almost an odd regional prologue to the current global HIV nightmare.

There are, however, two works of art that literally embody the arc of the disease in New York during the time of siege. Both are self-portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe. One has nothing to do with AIDS, and the other confronts it head on. Together they illustrate many stories of beauty and death—that of Prince Prospero in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” or Dorian Gray in Wilde’s Picture or Aschenbach in Mann’s Death in Venice—you get the idea. The first photograph is from 1980, when the artist was at the height of his notoriety. He was thirty-four and about to enter the neoclassical phase of his career, dominated by arrangements of expensive flowers and black men. The roughest stuff was behind him, but it still resonated. The wonder of the portrait is that its hustler ambience is all hair and costume; the face itself has a child’s strange, ambisexual softness, which skews the point of sale more toward apathetic vulnerability than predatory availability. The playacting boy in the picture—a stone-cold kid in a candy store—provides an interesting take on a moment when sexual license was daunting in its amplitude.

The second portrait is from 1988, when the artist was forty-two and had been living with AIDS for years. He was wheelchair-bound and ravaged by the illness that would claim him in March of ’89. The photograph is an almost ridiculously melodramatic composition, but it’s also an intensely eloquent balancing act that avoids tipping toward the vulgar. The artist’s face is oddly naked in its soft-focus remove; the catastrophe that has overtaken him is all too visible in the eyes, the set of the mouth, the streamlined bone structure. Any more information would be a violation. Would it work if the sitter were anyone but Robert Mapplethorpe? Of course, there is no answer. One of the photograph’s more remarkable effects is how the head moves toward you (not backward into the darkness). There are conversations yet to be had and understandings yet to be resolved. The death’s-head cane, which could so easily be the undoing of the photograph, has been turned into a scepter firmly in the grasp of the artist. The outlaw/aesthete is still sweetly, dramatically in control, and his profound understanding of the contained enormity of his mortality is ennobling.

Obviously, Robert Mapplethorpe is not the face of AIDS. His was an individual death, and that is the point. As someone with HIV, he disappeared into a database, and it is there, lost in a sea of statistics, that our comprehension of individual suffering atrophies. Today the sheer magnitude of measured death—from friendly fire, hijackings, military actions, terrorism, famine, genocide, AIDS—devours our capacity to see ourselves in the faces of others, to understand that each of us is equivalent. Robert Mapplethorpe’s face, framed in his final self-portrait, helps me understand.

Richard Flood is chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.