I was 11 or 12 when I befriended an older neighborhood boy who was a fanatical bodybuilder. Johnny pumped iron in the basement and would interrupt any conversation to do handstand pushups against a wall. He introduced me to bodybuilding competitions. I’d never seen anything like it: the modeling of the male body as sport and as what was not yet called performance art. The lights hardened and deepened the oiled musculature’s cut; each competitor made himself into the trophy of his dreams. Johnny and I also paged through physique magazines that some of the grown-ups — this was the 1950s — might have considered male porn. It wasn’t quite: the men wore briefer-than-briefs that outlined whatever you fantasized.
The theatricalized body idolatry in physique magazines was formative for the young Robert Mapplethorpe. Born in 1946 to middle-class parents in Queens, Mapplethorpe aspired to be a famous artist but wasn’t sure what kind. After high school he enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, joined ROTC, and majored first in advertising then in graphic arts. He dropped out before graduating and moved to New York, where he met Patti Smith (at first lover, then lifelong friend) and people in Andy Warhol’s circle. He made jewelry, collages, drawings, and mixed-media constructions. By the mid-1970s gay male iconography was his favored, sometimes polemical, subject. In several early pieces on view in Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, an expansive exhibition shared by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center (I saw only the LACMA share), soft-core male magazine images are locked behind netting or boxed-in or otherwise “censured.” But by the late 1970s Mapplethorpe was making high-finish frontal images of nude males and not-quite-documentarian photographs of the fetish and S/M activities in leather clubs, where he played and picked up boys who sometimes became his models.
Mapplethorpe was a fashion photographer whose couture was skin, mostly male, usually black. When he died in 1989 he was the most incendiary high-toned image-maker in America and his photographs were blue-chip acquisitions. Just after his death, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, under pressure from Jesse Helms and other centurions of public morality, canceled a traveling exhibit of his work: one Self-Portrait showed him in the famous hee-haw pose, his back to the camera with a bullwhip up his ass; another showed in extreme close-up a man inserting his pinky finger into his urethra. When the exhibition went to Cincinnati, antipornography militants charged the Contemporary Arts Center there with obscenity. (The CAC was acquitted.) At most venues, that exhibition, with its “X Portfolio” section off limits to minors and firewalled with warnings to adults, drew crowds, not just because of the raree-show allure of guys double-fisting and weighting their scrotums with chains, but because it was an unsavory clandestine subculture elevated to officially fine-art status. (A lot of viewers assumed he was a pretty rough boy, though he was, my friends who knew him report, a quiet, rather sweet person.) That wasn’t the only stream in Mapplethorpe’s work, but it was the one where his personal life, business smarts, and aesthetic canniness blended. He knew how to balance the elite satisfactions of elegant compositional strategies against the bad-boy swagger of swinging a dick in somebody’s face.
Mapplethorpe once said that his work “moves toward a kind of perfection — it’s just a matter of refining.” He was raised Catholic, and the structured asceticism of ritual observance became in his art an austere perfectionism, whether he was depicting a Corot-like spray of baby’s breath, a black penis exposed through the open zipper of a polyester suit, a Pop close-up of a dollar bill, or one guy rimming another. There are altars all over the very early work, and the worshipful character of his sensibility (which fashion photographers cultivate) stayed with him. The work is adorational but so formally rigorous that the unruly passion adoration can stir up was contained by the sealed-lab environment of the frame. Aesthetic perfectionism in service to the perfectionism of the body didn’t allow much ambiguity. I sometimes think his ambitions were conflicted: he may have aspired to a chancier wildness, but his sensibility (and awareness of what would sell) wouldn’t allow it. A construction he made in 1971 is a kind of self-portrait: it’s a cylinder filled with dice and fringed with a couple of rabbit feet, unlikely forms for an admitted control freak, but those dice are in a cage and the rabbit’s feet tied down.
In 1971, the 25-year-old Mapplethorpe met the 50-year-old collector Sam Wagstaff, who became lover and mentor to the young artist. Wagstaff gave Mapplethorpe a Polaroid camera, soon replaced by a Hasselblad, and urged him toward a more refined practice. The Polaroids’ casual, hangdog sincerity have the easy intimacy and coy look-at-me sultriness of family album images. Soon Mapplethorpe was expressing a different intimacy. He began to photograph skin in a way that was sensuously close and chillingly observational. He made the act of photography itself an act of costuming. Photography for him was idolatry that didn’t try to coax unpredictable responses from the cult object. A “rubberman” (an S/M devotee packaged entirely in black leather) or a black man in loin cloth and “tribal” face paint or male nude perched on a pedestal only needs to present himself, like any still-life object.
The images are driven by confessional impulses: Mapplethorpe wanted his images to possess the exquisiteness of the extremes that he experienced in life; he wanted to give a masterpiece aura to things that pleasured him. He did this also by making portraits. Most of them are drained of personality, but a few are extraordinary. His picture of Deborah Harry is a masterpiece of dissolute beauty, and his many images of the body-builder Lisa Lyons are pieces of a life that seems driven by self-definition of every kind, whether she’s hitting a muscle pose, dressing up as a languid pre-Raphaelite beauty, or acting the society babe in a flying saucer hat.
By the 1980s Mapplethorpe was photographing mostly the black male body. These pictures more than any others express skin as costuming. The black penis was beautiful and part of the comprehensiveness of Mapplethorpe’s essays on black presence. For me, an extreme attention to muscle definition peaked by meticulous lighting and a ritualized self-awareness of the pose make many of these images too perfectly beautiful to be beautiful, except for one disquieting image that lets history flood in: a frontal shot of a naked black man wearing a hood whose enfolded shape suggests both KKK costuming and the sheathed form of the man’s penis.
Mapplethorpe’s flower pictures are the favorites of many viewers, maybe because they’re sexualized but in a well-behaved, unthreatening way. They have the same norms of perfection, military precision, and priapic tenseness of the nudes, though a few have a more incipient, crouching motion, like a picture of tulips that lean into the frame like curious, probing, tentative birds. Some people are thrilled by Mapplethorpe’s work. Some are not. I am not. Going through the exhibition I had to keep overriding boredom. The pictures’ adventurous subject matter is usually sealed inside a picture-reality that refuses ambiguity, ambivalence, elusiveness, evanescence.
I know I’m criticizing Mapplethorpe for lacking what he probably didn’t aspire to, but this indifference to interiority made the exhibition laborious, except for images where something springs loose, when the intensification of life that image-life compels jumps away from his control, like the Deborah Harry picture; or the double portrait of a couple bound and bandaged together top to bottom in gauze except for a gaping, plaintive, ecstatic mouth; or the portrait titled Tim Scott, whom we see in three-quarter profile combing his gelled ducktail, a rooster-comb of stiff, glistening, jet hair arcing over his forehead: the musical staff faintly tattooed on his arm cuts tenderly across a heart.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles; lacma.org) and the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles; getty.edu) until July 31.