Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Sex and Magic
"For me, S&M means sex and magic, not sadomasochism,” the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once said. “It is all about trust." Born November 4, 1946, Mapplethorpe became the poster child for cultural controversy in the 1980s as AIDS, the disease that claimed Mapplethorpe’s life in 1989, thrust homosexuality into the American spotlight and opened up discussion of all types of sexual conduct. Whereas most of us see violence in many of the acts Mapplethorpe alludes to in his photography, he saw intimacy—acts natural to his sense of sexuality. Mapplethorpe fostered through his work an ideal of male physical beauty to rival the traditional female ideal in art. Mapplethorpe’s Robert Sherman (above, from 1983) echoes Man Ray’s famous portrait of Lee Miller titled simply Neck. Whereas Miller embodied the idea of the female muse for Ray, Sherman’s bald pate and heavily muscled neck and shoulders does the same for Mapplethorpe. Personally, I find much of Mapplethorpe’s work disturbing, but that’s more of an issue of my own boundaries than of any failure on his part. Sexuality is perhaps the most deeply personal aspect of whom we are, so any judgment is by definition a personal value judgment and not, as many hold, some universal rule to which all must conform. Sadly, Mapplethorpe’s sexuality and his artistic exploration of his sexuality still overshadow his larger achievement as an artist.
Mapplethorpe knew and exploited the whole history of Western art, especially in the field of portraiture. He felt a special kinship with musicians, including Deborah Harry, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith (shown photographed above, from 1976). Mapplethorpe also photographed Smith for the cover of her first album, Horses. During the days of disco, Mapplethorpe enjoyed the freer sexual and cultural climate that these musicians came to embody. Unlike so many other celebrity photographers, Mapplethorpe actually maintained his high art aspirations while climbing the social ladder. The photo of Smith above reflects the singer’s “naked” style of emotional singing and playing. Smith famous “unladylike” persona struck back against sexual stereotypes as much as Mapplethorpe did in his sexually charged photography. It’s fascinating to see how Mapplethorpe flourished during this period knowing in retrospect the struggles he faced in the American culture wars just a few years later.
With the possible exception of Brett Weston, Edward’s son, Mapplethorpe emulated the flower and vegetable studies of Edward Weston like no other. Mapplethorpe’s Calla Lilly (above, from 1988), one of a series of studies of that flower, captures all the beauty of the surfaces and folds in striking close-up. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, Mapplethorpe also clearly alludes to the sexual overtones of the flower’s shape, but by the fact of his sexual orientation turns those allusions on their head. Sexual politics aside, Mapplethorpe knew how to create striking images in any format. The fact that his name has become synonymous with controversy seems a sad legacy. However, the number of artists and curators who have risen to his defense in the name of artistic freedom gives one hope that one day Mapplethorpe’s work will hang beside that of his inspirations and bring a sprinkling of that sex and magic that pervades all his art.