Cheating Death: A Riff on the Life and Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe
by Lester Strong
My husband Dave and I went the other day to the Guggenheim Museum, on Fifth Avenue at 89 St. in Manhattan, to see its exhibition of work by the bad boy of American photography Robert Mapplethorpe, who died at age 42 in 1989 of AIDS-related causes. Titled “Implicit Tensions: Robert Mapplethorpe Now,” it’s a year-long look at what the Guggenheim on its website calls Mapplethorpe’s “groundbreaking” images and his “complex legacy in the field of contemporary art.” Part 1, running from January 25 through July 10, 2019, focuses on Mapplethorpe’s large corpus of work. Part 2, which runs from July 24, 2019, through January 5, 2020, will focus on his legacy, combining selections of his images on view alongside work by other contemporary artists in the Guggenheim’s collection.
Quite a few books have been written about Mapplethorpe and his photography. But looking at the exhibition, I was reminded especially of one book about him—in my estimation by far the best: Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, a memoir by his sometime lover, close friend, and collaborator Jack Fritscher. Fritscher’s book is not just a memoir with facts, dates, and descriptions about Mapplethorpe’s life, but offers an insider’s fascinating glimpses into the personal and psychological dynamics of an individual who did so much to help shape the artistic and pop culture we know today. Like Mapplethorpe, he was a citizen of the 1970s’ gay demimonde of leathersex, drugs, and discos before the age of AIDS. Unlike Mapplethorpe, he survived the plague physically unharmed. But like anyone who saw many, many of their friends perish because of the disease, he was clearly deeply marked by it. On page 14 of Mapplethorpe, he describes the book as follows: “This biomemoir is a survivor’s document.”
Fritscher holds a doctorate in American literature, and over the years has been a prolific writer. Early on he turned his literary talents in a personal direction toward the subject matter that interested him most as a gay culture critic, historian, and social activist. The founding San Francisco editor-in-chief of Drummer magazine, which targeted gay men with an interest in leather culture, he gave Mapplethorpe his first cover assignment, a leathersex photo that appeared on the front of the fall 1978 issue, number 24. And his memoir makes clear that he was important in helping Mapplethorpe define and promote his public image. “I helped him create himself” is the way Fritscher put it near the start of the book.
Returning to the Guggenheim exhibition, what do the photos on view there show us about Mapplethorpe’s work, his reputation, his influence, his life? First, like all of his photography, they are in black and white, a nuanced black and white palette, to be sure, but no color, nothing to distract from their stark, visually arresting content. Then there are the images of tulips, roses, and other flowers; the images of well-known individuals like Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, and Patti Smith, among other celebrities; the images of nude white and black men, sometimes alone, sometimes in each other’s arms; the images of men in leather, and at least one image of a woman so accoutered: the female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon; the selfies of Mapplethorpe himself, mostly in leather, at other times suggesting a drag persona; and the occasional image of a skull, with or without Mapplethorpe attached.
As we walked through the exhibition, Dave noted the three-dimensional quality of the images, remarking: “If Mapplethorpe had lived, I wonder if he would have moved on to sculpture.” Good insight, Dave! As Fritscher noted in his book, Mapplethorpe took up the camera because he had embraced the “pop culture concept of photographic art as immediate gratification in a society living in the fast lane. Sculpture, his major at Pratt, or painting, took too long.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t three dimensionality in his photos that made him a famous, or rather an infamous, cultural icon. It was in part another pop culture fascination: sexual innuendo. His photos of flowers were sensually provocative. His nude black and white males were sexually suggestive. His men in leather (including himself) were both sexually suggestive and often more than a little sinister. His drag selfies were sexually outré in a disquieting way.
This was no accident. Mapplethorpe was obsessed by sex. According to Fritscher, he called himself “a male nymphomaniac” who couldn’t get sex out of his mind. Most of his images were saturated with sexual initmations, apparent to even the most casual viewer.
Mapplethorpe cut quite a swath through the art world of the 1970s and 1980s, mingling with the rich and famous, admired and celebrated for his elegant if often outrageous photographic take on the world of gay leathersex and kink as well as the sexual allure of black men, white men, and black and white flowers. Equally, he was vilified and attacked by the anti-sex, homophobic social and political right-wing. His photos and lifestyle drove such people into a frenzy of disapproval. I would also argue that his AIDS diagnosis in 1986 and death from the disease in 1989 simply sealed his reputation among that segment of the population as an artist to be opposed at all costs. Think of the (successful) pressure put on the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1989 to cancel the posthumous exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” or the (unsuccessful) obscenity suit the next year aimed at closing the same show in Cincinnati. He not just promoted a queer lifestyle, he had been infected by and died from a sexually transmitted virus homophobes believed all gay men deserved to die from because, in their view, by indulging in gay sex practices gay men brought the disease on themselves.
How times have changed. The day Dave and I were at the Guggenheim, the exhibition had its fair share of families with children and the Mapplethorpes on view contained their fair share of the very kind of images the homophobes had denounced so vociferously thirty years before. Homophobes still exist in the world. But no one that day—or any other day during the show that I know of—was protesting it or picketing the museum. Somehow, someway, over the decades, attitudes about sex, the nature of beauty to be seen sometimes in dark places, even the willingness to accept the dark places in our own psyches seem to have changed, changes doubtless due in some measure to the influence of Mapplethorpe’s work.
And what of AIDS? There was not much in the exhibition to indicate it affected his work, and not much anywhere else I’ve been able to track down, although he did photograph a skull or so, and a selfie of himself holding a cane topped by a skull late in his life. He was no Keith Haring, whose confrontation with AIDS was a big motivator in his work.
Jack Fritscher’s memoir indicates Mapplethorpe did not so much deny he had AIDS as ignore its effects, at least as long as his health permitted him to do so. From the start of his career, he had other things on his mind, chief among them the pursuit of fame. “I want my story to be told around the world,” Fritscher’s book quotes him as saying. In other words, he wanted to become a legend, and in that aim he certainly succeeded. On the other hand, as Fritscher commented, he lived so furiously in the fast lane that he practically courted death at a young age. Fritscher again: “We both knew he would lead a fast, brief life. . . . If AIDS hadn’t got him, something else would have.”
Nevertheless, because Mapplethorpe died of AIDS, the disease haunts his legacy—and in more ways than just the manner of his death. Knowing he would die, he carefully crafted the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, one of whose principal functions—aside from promoting his artistic legacy—is to fund AIDS research and residential treatment facilities.
As a provocateur, a photographer, a legend, a philanthropist, he has left his mark on the world. How best to sum up my encounter with Mapplethorpe at the Guggenheim? Perhaps one way is to note the contrast between two of his selfies on view in the exhibition: Self Portrait, 1980, and Self Portrait, 1985, the first taken before the AIDS crisis, the second before his formal diagnosis but when he must have realized he was sick. In the 1980 image, he wears the sultry look of a young man on the make, hoping to accomplish great things. In the 1985 image, his hair has thinned and greyed and he’s both in and out of focus. What are his thoughts as he stares into the distance? In one memorable conversation he told Jack Fritscher “You can’t cheat death . . . but you can cheat life.” How? “By not living,” he told Fritscher. Mappletorpe didn’t cheat life—in the time given to him he lived it to the full. But I think in a way he did manage to cheat death. Isn’t the work into which he poured himself still alive today? Does it show signs of being forgotten any time soon? Clearly not to the people who still throng to his shows so many years after his passing. I’m one of those who can’t stop looking at his photos because they continue to speak to me in so many ways. And as long as his art speaks, something of him remains alive. It’s the immortality of the artist.
All direct quotations from Mapplethorpe: Assault with Deadly Camera are used by permission of the author.
For anyone interested in reading about Robert Mapplethorpe and his milieu, Jack Fritscher’s memoir is highly recommended. To read it online or purchase a copy of it for your library, visit the website http://www.jackfritscher.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.