Who Was Mapplethorpe?
A new book answers some of the questions about the photographer who wanted to be a story told 'round the world.
NEW YORK NATIVE, October 10, 1994
by Charles Casillo
There are certain people who become more fascinating in death: James Dean, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix--people who rise from nowhere, flare white hot, and then are suddenly gone, forever to remain enigmatic in the annals of history. People who become so fascinating that their legacies become more and more valuable with each passing year. Robert Mapplethorpe is fast approaching that kind of legendary status.
Mapplethorpe! What do you think of when you hear that name? Leather? Nude black men? Huge penises? Satan? His most famous photographs are of leather men, phallic flowers, and muscular body parts, and have high price tags in Christie's catalog. But who was the man responsible for creating these images? After Mapplethorpe's death, Senator Jesse Helms attacked his photos and the name Mapplethorpe became even bigger, the work even more valuable. But who was Mapplethorpe? Don't you wish he could attend your next dinner party so you could try to figure him out for yourself? Alas, all that's left to piece together the mystery that is Mapplethorpe are the pictures he left behind and the remembrances of the people who know him.
Jack Fritscher, a friend and former lover of Mapplethorpe's, shares his insights and personal memories in his new book Mapplethorpe: Assault With a Deadly Camera. The two met in 1977 when the unknown Mapplethorpe flew to San Francisco, who at the time was the editor of Drummer magazine. Fritscher recognized Mapplethorpe's unique talent and assigned him his first magazine cover. They soon became friends, lovers, and colleagues. During the years they knew each other (until Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS complications in 1989), Mapplethorpe repeatedly asked Fritscher to write about him. It's easy to see why someone who was as conscious of his place in history as Mapplethorpe was, could want someone like Jack Fritscher in his life. Fritscher is intelligent, perceptive, sensitive, articulate--and a good writer. His book is not only An addictively readable memoir of his relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, but also a vivid chronicle of the times in which they lived--the 1970s, the so-called Golden Age before AIDS, a time when sex and drugs dominated the pop culture scene. Mapplethorpe: Assault With a Deadly Camera gives some first-hand insight into the mind of a brilliant artist whose work epitomized his times.
Robert Mapplethorpe looked at the times he was living in and saw a place where he could make his mark. Then he carefully, deliberately carved out that place. Sexuality and controversy were among his tools. Mapplethorpe had talent. He had skill. He had vision. He was also attractive and charming, and he sought out friendships with people who could further him. He became lovers with the wealthy, influential patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff. (Wagstaff approached the young Mapplethorpe in 1972 and said "I'm looking for somebody to spoil;" Mapplethorpe replied, "You found him.") Oh yes, Mapplethorpe knew how to make people want what he was offering. He was a genius at merchandising. All of these things came together, as they must, to create the legend.
But who was Mapplethorpe? I spoke with Jack Fritscher to find out. Here are some pieces to the puzzle:
Charles Casillo: I think that when most people think of Mapplethorpe what comes to mind is this sort of dark, perverse, almost satanic figure. A lot of that, of course, has to do with his work, and the legendary controversy surrounding it--so as someone who knew him as a friend and also as a lover, could you tell us what Mapplethorpe was really like as a person?
Jack Fritscher: He was very bright, shining, an intellectual in the sense of somebody whose intellect was always working. He wasn't the best educated person you could ever meet, but he was charming, kind, sweet--all the things that you associate with a nice Catholic boy. What he did to achieve this reputation--which he did work at--was to play the darker side of Catholicism, going into the iconography. He loved the icon of The Virgin Mary, and out of that he spins all his iconic pictures of women. He liked the iconic imagery of the martyrs in the martyrology, so you get the S&M leather pictures. Historically, however good or bad the missionaries are, Robert was raised on images of missionaries going in and seeing a face of a different color, and that, too, went into his photographs of black men.
So a lot of the things that are perceived in the secular world as being satanic or evil, playing on the dark side of the moon, are really just him taking a side of religion that even the fundamentalist protestants know is there, because as much as they talk about Jesus they talk about the devil. I mean, they're more satanic-minded than Mapplethorpe ever was.
Do you think his exploration of these themes really stemmed from his interests, or was it a shrewd eye on what would stir controversy--and what would sell?
He looked into his own nature to see what was commercial, and I think any artist does that. You create from what you know, and he knew this instinctively and through education. So he thought to bring out this Catholicism and this kind of martyrology. Remember that The Exorcist was the most popular book and movie in the decade in which Mapplethorpe made his big splash. It looks different now because nobody thinks of The Exorcist. One of the things that I tried to do in the book is give Mapplethorpe in context--and Mapplethorpe in context does not seem as extreme as he does when he's not given the context of the '70s in which he really made his first emergence. The '70s have gotten such a bad bashing in the '80s and in the '90s because people say the '70s caused AIDS, which is of course ridiculous. People in the '70s didn't cause AIDS--a virus caused AIDS. But because it is easy to make a blanket assumption, the '70s have gotten unjustly slammed. They were a wonderful, creative time filled with very happy people. And Robert was a very happy person. He kind of screwed up and tried to make himself a little happier by all the intake of drugs, because he was continually sniffing and snorting something, and trying to encourage everybody else around him to also do that, but that again was the style of the times.
You say in the book that he was very sensitive and very shy and that drug-taking was a way for him to explore his perversion.
Well, drug-taking releases the id. Robert, raised on popular culture, took drugs because he knew that if he took them he could go into physical places, perverse places that he wouldn't normally go because his superego was functioning. He knew that if he gave Mr. X drugs that night he might be able to bring out more of Mr. X than had ever been brought out before. So he liked to give his partners drugs in order to make them playmates. But again, that was typical courtesy in the '70s--you shared your drugs. The book tries to time-trip the reader back. It's about Robert Mapplethorpe, but it also is an occasion to use Robert to talk about the way we truly were in the '70s. It tries to get history corrected so that history is not forced into being something that is politically correct, but to correct it without rethinking it. Too many people have tried to rethink the '70s. There are a lot of photographers who hate Robert Mapplethorpe.
Why is he hated--particularly by much of the gay community who really didn't accept him in life or death?
Because Robert's message when he was young and alive and kicking was "Get out of the gay ghetto. Leave the gay-stream--get into the mainstream." He told them what they were: small fish in a small pond. He told them there were bigger ponds and bigger fish. My words are: You've come out of one closet-your sexual closet-so why go into the larger closet of your ghetto? The whole world is waiting out there for you. Robert did that, and I think that people who didn't have the courage of their convictions, or didn't have the talent-or both-said, "Oh well, Robert made it because he had a millionaire lover in Manhattan." Well, A) maybe he was smart to get that lover; and B) even smarter to keep him; and C) have that lover start a whole movement of photography as a collectible art form. Because until 1977 or 1978 when Robert was just coming into focus, he and Sam Wagstaff were collecting what was called antique photography. Nobody knew what to do with old photographs, they thought it was sort of kitsch, sort of camp. I mean, can you really hang a photograph in your apartment and consider yourself avant-garde? Well, once Sam, with all of his social and intellectual art ties, started collecting photography, other people started thinking about collecting photography too. Once they established photography as a collectible, it was easy to say, "Here's one of the newer photographers who is also collectible." They had to create the market for Robert. Other gay people create works of art, but there's no market for it mainly because of prejudice against being gay. It's hard to get things that are significantly gay out into the mainstream because of all the prejudices still held against it. In our society, women now are able to kiss on Roseanne, but men--even in something as serious as And the Band Played On--cannot. All the affection scenes in Philadelphia were cut out. Robert tried to get around all that, and succeeded.
So they created this whole game for art and art collectors, and at the same time created this contemporary photographer "Robert Mapplethorpe" who intended on being shocking. He would go up to people and show them a photograph and if they gasped or blinked they lost because he mould say, "You don't like this photograph because you're not as avant-garde as you think."
So he wasn't pushing images because he wanted to get them accepted, it was just basically really good marketing on his part?
It was marketing and self-conscious. When he was a very young photographer; he would go into offices and introduce himself and say, "Hello, I'm Robert Mapplethorpe, the pornographic photographer." So he tried to be a bad boy. Pretty soon the reputation started to catch on in the folk-speak of tales being told at night in beds around the world that Robert Mapplethorpe was a bad boy. Then the press picked it up.
Did he cultivate a bad-boy image because he knew the time was right, or was that real?
It was both. If what makes you bad is staying out late, having promiscuous sex, taking drugs, and being an artist, then all of us were bad.
But he became the richest.
Well, as George Dureau said, "He ran himself like a department store." Everything was for sale. I think one of the most clever things he ever did was use Catholicism. There are three types of relics in Catholicism: there's a piece of the body, a first class relic. The second class relic is something the saint owned. And the third class relic is something they touched. Robert would buy things that he liked, use them in photographs so he could deduct them, and they became instantly more valuable, because by the time he died, if you look at the Christie's catalog, in there you find that you could buy the bust of Apollo that Robert used in a picture and he had breathed on it to give it a kind of glossy life right before he snapped the photograph. So you could buy the photograph and the bust itself, which was valuable before the photograph, now even more valuable: He owned it, he breathed on it, he used it in a photograph. So it becomes a mixed media kind of thing.
I didn't know this myself, but Robert's photography is actually considered derivative. In the book, you talk to photographers whose work influenced Mapplethorpe's.
Do you think Mapplethorpe's work has outlived that of his influences?
I think perspective will come in. Robert got high media publicity in the marketing and merchandising of Mapplethorpe. The best thing that ever happened to him, something he could only work as a miracle in heaven, was Jesse Helms. Robert was dead 85 days before Jesse Helms got the show closed at the Corcoran--and of course he didn't know any of that would happen.
So you think that was a great thing to happen as far as his legend goes?
Oh, yeah. When he said to me, "I want to be a story told in beds at night around the world," he meant he wanted to enter the realm of legend. I was taken along with him on adventures as a friend, as a lover, as a sex partner, but I knew some of the times I was there just to document what was going on. I'm not the only one. If you look at the list of his friends--Patti Smith, Edmund White--they're all writers. I'm sure he wanted them all to write about him in different ways. Everybody has his and her own Mapplethorpe. I think that the media blip that occurred to him was larger than he could have expected, but one he would have greatly appreciated. If he hadn't been bad in ways that people can interpret as being bad--and he really wasn't that bad, I mean, he didn't kill anybody, he didn't cause anybody to take drugs-he was just sociable. But because he is a dead homosexual, and dead homosexuals are the easiest to bash, so that when Jesse Helms needed a campaign issue he could hit on the dead homosexual and make a big stink out of that. I mean, that Mapplethorpe photo of the little girl raising her dress is the picture of innocence. I think that censors are very often stamping out in other people the very thing they're most afraid of in themselves. So anybody who starts yelling about Mapplethorpe is really saying, "I'm afraid that I may want to go out and put on leather and want to get tied up and it terrifies me too much." But all their fantasies, while they're bopping their wives, are about getting tied up.
Speaking sexually, you mention in the book that some of his partners say that, although his photos are sexual, he wasn't a good sexual partner. You say that he was too intellectual and that he intellectualized sex too much. Was that your experience?
Oh, yes, we discussed that. He said that the reason he liked balling me is because we had intelligent sex.
And what is that?
Intelligent sex is when you do the Vulcan mind meld. When the brain waves in both of you are so in synch that you could begin to role play and actualize things that most people wouldn't admit in their deepest darkest moments.
So his bad boy image is basically something he developed for commercial reasons?
Sure. Even on the cover of the hook he looks like Mick Jagger--who is a bad boy. He adored Jim Morrison, who was a bad boy, so bad that he killed himself. James Dean was a bad boy. Almost any of the young stars-all the people in pop culture whom Robert worshipped--were all bad boys. Marlon Brando in The Wild One was a bad boy, and Brando stole his leather jacket from Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun--everyone forgets that that's where leather really started--because Clift was the bad boy in that. So the bad boy who is lovable comes all the way up to contemporary times. So the bad boy is like a folk hero and Robert wanted to achieve that status.
You said that he was a natural born suicide and that he intentionally killed himself, despite warnings, with unsafe sex and drugs. And that, even without the specter of AIDS, he would have been dead by the end of the '80s anyway.
Yes. Sex and death to intellectuals are so entwined that artists continually combine them in art. You really can't think about one without the other. Even in people's romantic sentiments: "I'd die if I didn't have you." "I couldn't live without you." Robert played with this.
Do you think he wanted to die young--for the sake of his legend?
For the purpose of the legend, yes. I mean, there are rumors that Robert Mapplethorpe is alive and collecting money. But I doubt it. People saw him die. You see, he was very conscious of creating a legend, but I saw in him someone who would die at an early age because he did not take care of himself. He's like Joan of Arc, and in the book he is compared to Joan of Arc, who died as a teenage soldier. For the sake of the legend he would give up himself so that he could become a legend. If Robert could have worn Blackglama, he would have.
In a way, It makes me think of Sylvla Plath. Before she died, her poetry wasn't being that widely accepted and It was as if she subconsciously knew that by killing herself it would add to her mystique and her legend and, as a result, her persona, so that her poetry would take on a more fascinating and valuable place in history.
I think all artists have that. I've said many times that if I were dead, the books I've written would have many more editions of them out. Being alive is sort of the worst thing that you could be if you're an artist. People like dead artists because they can capsulize them. They're safe. But we'll know if Mapplethorpe's legend really works when, like the Ethel Merman stamp, we have the Robert Mapplethorpe stamp. And I want to see Jesse Helms lick it.
Would you call Mapplethorpe a user? Did he seek out friendships only with people who could further him?
Are people who marry each other users?
Well, I think everybody's looking to get something out of their relationships.
Right. Everyone is looking to get something out of it. I was better known than he was when he came to me when I was editor of Drummer magazine. He wanted to use the pages of my magazine. I had covers and pages to fill. I wanted to use him to fill those pages. So it was mutual use. You know that song: "If you're using me you can use me till you use me up" But actually we gave; it wasn't use. We gave to each other. If Robert even intimated that he wanted something, I got it for him. If he needed a model, I would find him a model....
But did he drop people after he got all he could out of them?
Some people he dropped. To some people, he remained steadfastly faithful. Others came in and out of his life continually. The main two things that caused most people to split from him were AIDS and his celebrity. The culture of AIDS hadn't emerged. It was something you couldn't talk about. The other thing was his celebrity. Once the celebrity demands were upon him and he knew he wasn't Robert Mapplethorpe the private person, that he was Mapplethorpe the public person who was on his way to becoming a legend, he had to go to openings in Europe and various countries, he had to go here, he had to go there. That took him away from the personal relationships that he had with people. Nearly all the people who knew Robert who I interviewed for this book had this wonderful relationship with him to begin with, then it became ambivalent. He did some thing, or they didn't live up to what he wanted, and there was this kind of split. But then sooner or later there was this kind of reconciliation scene--whether it was dramatically played out in person, on the phone, or in writing--and every body ended up forgiving him for every thing and ended up loving the same person in the end that they loved in the be ginning I think even his leaving money for AIDS research was his way of kissing and making up with people he thought he might have been on the outs with.
One of the interesting things about these legendary figures is that they struggled for years before they reached their success, and very few people noticed them or helped them while they were struggling. And then, after they make it, everyone wants a piece of them, and they say things like, "Oh yes, I always saw the talent in him. I always knew he was going to be big. But you were one of the people who recognized Mapplethorpe's talent from the very beginning when he was a nobody. And that's really admirable.
Yes, Holly Solomon and I recognized it.
She here in New York, and I on the West Coast. Robert was always grateful for that. He was very generous to me in the photographs that he gave to me--Robert was not very generous about giving photographs to people at all. At the time, in gay popular culture, nobody was giving artists a fair shake, a real review. And with my background I'm very well trained in criticism and teaching journalism, so I knew what to do when I be came editor of Drummer. What I wanted to do was give gay artists real reviews. I gave Robert real coverage as a personality profile at one time, and once there was even a casting call to people who read Drummer, if you wanted to be in a photograph by a really hot photographer who's going places. At the time, remember, Robert was simply an artist among other artists. But remember, it's very important, Robert came to people like me, he went right to the places himself to get his stuff in, he never once went to any body and asked for a government grant or a private grant of any kind. He just wasn't that kind of boy. He wanted to be unsponsored.
How did you meet Mapplethorpe and what did you see in him that made him special to you?
I was sitting at my desk in my office at Drummer and he came in and asked to show me his portfolio. He hoped for a couple of pages on the inside. And I took a look at it and I said, "Wow, these are wonderful. These are beautiful." I saw the beauty in what he was trying to do. There was a crisp, crystalline vision in his work at that time.
Yet they weren't erotic? You say In the book that no one ever jerked off to a Mapplethorpe photo.
Yes, but that is a writer's rhetoric That is...maybe hyperbole...maybe irony. We live in an age of irony. I have jerked off to Mapplethorpe photographs and I know many people have. But they're not created specifically to jerk off to. It's just that if you see something that is part of your twisted kink and it's in his photograph.... I mean there are people who jerk off to a Sears Catalog, and that's not erotic So Robert's erotic content is largely an erotic content carried to the photograph in the baggage of the person viewing it.
So his whole body of work isn't lust calculated commercialism, he really was into that type of scene and that really was a documentation of his lifestyle.
His art genuinely was sexually driven. His sexual tastes drove his art. He was interested in leather and S&M and the whole punk thing that he and Patty Smith were part of. And the sex he was interested in caused him to delve into the leather set in order to get photographs of this nighttime culture that he was interested in. When he got bored with that, the "bad boy" moved on to the next bad boy thing he could think of and that was the kind of taboo image of black men.
Back in that period, Robert Mapplethorpe and I ended up in bed two hours after meeting. I looked at his portfolio, I gave him an assignment, we went out to dinner and we went to bed. It was that quick. That was the '70s. People would find out the sexuality of the other person and try to get into that immediately. Robert used the sexual drive that he had. He learned about blacks from George Dureau's photography and paintings of blacks, plus George Dureau's true love and affection for black men, which continues to this day, and as George would say, "Then he took his nasty little New York spin." He could be "Nice Robert" in New Orleans, he could be "Nice Robert" in San Francisco but he would take whatever he found there and--this will really answer your question--he would take it back to New York and put the Manhattan spin on it that was required to sell it.
So he knew how to commercialize his real interests and obsessions?
Yes. He started out framing art. He was first known for his frames. And in a sense, Manhattan was his frame. He would go out and find out what other people were doing and he would take it through his own lens, get his own fine tuned focus on it, and then up the ante so that it would be accelerated enough to hang in a swank New York apartment.
I would call that genius.
It is. It's commercial genius. And that's the best kind of genius.
Were you ever photographed by him?
What was a Mapplethorpe shoot like?
It was incredible because "Robert the person" truly would levitate into "Robert the artist." And it was a person you knew because you knew the artist was always there, one was the other. He would say, "Go sit down over there," and then click click click lights would come on; the camera would come out and it was just absolutely effortless. He could get whatever he wanted--he could either put a mask on you or strip a mask off you. I see that in the photographs of people he's taken. He's either stripped them down, like peeling an onion, peeling off several layers to get a face they've never shown before. He got Yoko Ono to take her sunglasses off so we could finally see her eyes. With other people, he put masks on their faces so that they could become dramatic, ritual play-acting things. I must make this very clear--Robert was a photographer, but before he was a photographer he was an artist. And there is a difference. There are a lot of photographers who are wannabe Mapplethorpes who are running around just as jealous as they were before--there's a whole new crop that's jealous of him. They think if they take a picture that's sexy, they're the next Mapplethorpe. But it's not the photography, it's the artistry--it's the artist's eye that he had.
The title of the book is Assault With A Deadly Camera. What, exactly, was the assault of Mapplethorpe's camera?
The title is a very high concept title. What Robert wanted to do is assault the complacent, the bourgeoisie, and say, "If you really want to be avant-garde, look at this. If you think you're so wonderful look at this. I can break the trance that you're in if you look at this picture. If you blink, if you flinch, you're not as avant-garde as you think." He wanted people to wake up and take a look at themselves. He didn't have any kind of real social consciousness. Robert's freak show was different: He wanted to take the friends you know, the friends I know, the people we idolize in pop culture and put them on a piece of film and some of the funny things and odd things and bizarre things they do and maybe connect with.
What about 25 years from now, when some of these images no longer make us flinch? Do you think they have lasting value?
What kind of value?
Well, a lot of his notoriety comes from the shock value, the controversy, and the censorship. Twenty-five years from now these images may not be so controversial.
No, but they'll still be beautiful.
So you think his reputation will last?
Yes. He may not turn out to be the greatest photographer but he'll be the most controversial photographer of this century. He will be in the pantheon of great photographers because of the sheer beauty that he brought to the image.
So his photography will be a testament to the beauty of the times.
Well, just as the Jewish people lost a whole civilization because of the Nazis, we lost a whole civilization because of AIDS. And luckily, Robert was one of the people there with an adequate camera. It's not just snapshots from the hip, it's a real camera working to give us some images of a happy time before we all got so miserable. So historically, he is important, but the beauty transcends. You've got a wonderful mix of the two things. The hidden Mapplethorpe--what's in the photographs is something that you would never find in the pages of most gay magazines. People are still running from it. They want to distance themselves from Robert because they think that he alone created AIDS, that his pictures somehow infected the bloodstream of America. They didn't.
They just document it.
Yeah, they document. I mean if his pictures are an occasion of sin, Robert would be delighted. You probably have a Catholic background. You know about Catholicism and occasion for sin.
Yeah, I'm a Catholic.
[Laughs] I know. With a name like Charles Casillo, of course you are. Everyone involved with Mapplethorpe was Catholic. Catholicism permeates his work. Patricia Morrisroe told me, "I never met so many Catholics in my life since I met the friends of Mapplethorpe." If Robert thought he could make somebody commit a mortal sin by masturbating to one of his photographs he would be in heaven--where he probably is.
But yet he did have a sweet side. And a shy side.
Oh yes. Shy. Sweet. You would have loved him. You could spend a whole afternoon just sitting with him and talking.
I wish I could.
He was so casual and laid back.
What do you think he would want history to say about him--because in the book you quote him as saying he wanted to be a story told around the world. How do you think Mapplethorpe would want to be remembered?
As we are now sitting around a table talking about him in New York. He wanted me to write about him. While I was writing about him, he sat on my shoulder. I had to be true to what I thought he wanted when he asked me, years ago, to write about what I knew about him. Not i everything I don't know everything about him. In the book I just want a sense of Robert to come through. I want people to find Robert between those two covers and I think if they read it they will. But I think he wanted to be remembered like this. And I hope that other people remember him in articles and videos and books, because the Mapplethorpe stories are only now beginning to be told. That's why I think when he said that he wanted to be a story told--he would love it people sitting around talking about him--and missing him.
Copyright: NEW YORK NATIVE by Charles Casillo