Per­fec­tion is some­where else

VOGUE Hommes International (English) - - I IS ANOTHER - By ARTHUR DREY­FUS VHI

“The rules of the cos­mos were ir­rel­e­vant to him: he was free at last.”

—This is the story of a man left reel­ing by life. The story of the eter­nal os­cil­la­tion be­tween the spir­ited im­per­fec­tion of life, and the time­less per­fec­tion of art. Robert Map­plethorpe had ev­ery­thing it took to be­come a rad­i­cal artist, start­ing with his birth shortly after the end of WWII as one of a fam­ily of six sib­lings born to An­glo–Ir­ish Ro­man Catholic par­ents, who were nei­ther too poor nor too rich, and lived not too many miles from down­town Man­hat­tan. We should not re­strict our­selves to con­text only. There has to be some­thing else. Un­like many chil­dren, Robert did not like to play. He looked at flow­ers. He looked at the sky. And then looked into thin air. In his own way, he was play­ing. He de­vel­oped a pas­sion for coloured crayons. Re­ject­ing the colours ar­bi­trar­ily cho­sen by na­ture, he coloured the world ac­cord­ing to his own in­tu­ition. In a word: he was suf­fer­ing. It wasn’t con­ven­tional suf­fer­ing. The world around him wob­bled. It’s point­less to try and un­der­stand. The more you look, the less you find. One thing only is known for cer­tain: Robert did not like the world be­cause he trea­sured it too much. The mea­sured dis­tance be­tween ab­strac­tion and terra firma was found want­ing. Es­cape be­came a ne­ces­sity. Un­sur­pris­ingly, an artist was wait­ing to emerge. He had a gift for draw­ing, and, more broadly, for the im­age. That might have been the end of the story. But that would also be disin­gen­u­ous. One al­ways es­capes twice. On mov­ing to New York, it was nec­es­sary to re­ject the path his fa­ther had cho­sen for him, to refuse to com­pro­mise him­self in graphic de­sign for ad­ver­tis­ing, to turn aside from the purely dec­o­ra­tive.

This is the story of a man who chose re­birth. The man­ner is not in­nate: it calls for ad­juncts. First cannabis, and then LSD, helped to bring ab­strac­tion and terra firma closer. Other fig­ures be­gin to emerge. Like him, they have just given their first cry after re–birth. The blood of the womb has yet to be washed off their bod­ies. A fam­ily forms, re­plac­ing the ear­lier one. But hal­lu­ci­na­tion has one draw­back, in that it is only tem­po­rary. The arts have one qual­ity in that they are un­chang­ing. One must cling on to their con­stancy, the least ap­prox­i­mate of all things. Pho­tog­ra­phy is a para­dox that de­picts move­ment by still­ing it for­ever. It’s faster than draw­ing. Time was short and pho­tog­ra­phy it was to be. Once the shut­ter has clicked, the im­age is re­vealed within min­utes. It’s the in­stru­ment of the im­pa­tient. Robert ex­plained it thus: “Pho­tog­ra­phy is a very quick way to make sculp­ture.” You note the decor, re­veal your sub­ject mat­ter — singers, dancers, ban­dits se­quinned or strait­jack­eted …. A cul­ture is printed in black and white, tes­ti­fy­ing to your ex­is­tence ( since you doubt even that ). But this is only a start­ing point. You do not sur­vive sim­ply by ob­serv­ing that you ex­ist: you have to look deeper.

This is the story of a body ask­ing it­self ques­tions; of a body that only dis­cov­ered it­self in later life. He has loved a woman, but he loves men. Hav­ing a body is un­bear­able — it has to be wrecked. It’s the done thing. In the main­stream press, there is much talk of sex­ual revo­lu­tion. In the un­der­ground press, the talk is all about free­dom. Aids is a mean­ing­less term as yet, leather and bondage will soon be out–dated, mu­sic is be­ing trans­formed and will soon be­come the mute voice of a whole era — the voice of a young gen­er­a­tion. Plea­sure pen­e­trates the body. Pho­tog­ra­phy takes over, rush­ing down stairs and ex­plor­ing the world of un­der­ground cel­lars. Robert hangs up his Po­laroid. De­vel­op­ing the film is time out from time. Robert be­gan as a pho­tog­ra­pher for him­self. He now be­came a pho­tog­ra­pher for oth­ers. He said “I don’t like that par­tic­u­lar word ‘shock­ing’.” Adding: “I felt an obli­ga­tion to do them” ( the photographs ).

This is the story of a vic­tory. Robert Map­plethorpe, who died at such an early age, was only able to pho­to­graph his world over a mere twenty years, in an un­end­ing striv­ing after the oth­er­where of per­fec­tion. He said, with a smile on his face, “I’m not chas­ing im­per­fec­tion”. To can­cel the dan­ger of pure chance you nat­u­rally opt for the staged. Through­out the dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods, the at­ten­tive ob­server will note that, while com­po­si­tion and struc­ture guide Map­plethorpe from his ear­li­est images, what he photographs gains in pre­ci­sion from year to year, leav­ing be­hind the chiaroscuro of be­hind–the–scenes so­cial in­ti­macy ( a world soon to come un­der Nan Goldin’s mag­ni­fy­ing gaze ) for the ge­om­e­try of flesh cal­i­brated to the mil­lime­tre and a fascination for what almost es­capes the liv­ing ( flow­ers ) and, almost, time it­self ( stat­ues ).

Was it the im­mi­nence of ill­ness? Was it the ir­re­vo­ca­ble toll of pass­ing years? Was it his thirst — quick­ened by his ex­tra­or­di­nary fragility — for de­pend­able struc­ture, em­pha­sised by the equally de­pend­able, unswerving sym­me­try of the square for­mat and by his at­tach­ment to black and white in almost all the images he made? What­ever the case, from the late 1970s on­wards, Robert Map­plethorpe, who un­til then had only been “look­ing for the un­ex­pected”, things he “had never seen be­fore”, sought the ab­so­lute im­age, just as the leg­endary al­chemist Ni­co­las Flamel sought the Philoso­pher’s Stone. Hav­ing un­der­stood that that ab­so­lute could not be plucked out of thin air, he very scrupu­lously cre­ated the con­di­tions for achiev­ing it.

Ini­tially, he went about this by isolating his sub­jects. The back­drops are no longer fea­ture­less scrims. Their tex­ture and con­tours sit­u­ate the ob­ject in space. Mir­a­cles, the tran­scen­dence of re­al­ity, need a clear de­mar­ca­tion line be­tween them and the real. As time went by, anatomies be­came de­tached from faces ( gazes ), as he fo­cused on the sup­ple­ness and the power of his vol­umes. Sub­se­quently, he did it by max­imis­ing the gift of light, a con­stituent essence of God and of pho­tog­ra­phy. In his later years, Map­plethorpe was ob­sessed by the light­ing in his stu­dios be­cause the mod­els he chose ( and who com­plained of the ex­ces­sive heat dur­ing their sit­tings ) had never been closer to his vi­sion of per­fec­tion. The rules of the cos­mos were now ir­rel­e­vant to him: he was free at last. In line with this, his sub­jects be­came in­creas­ingly re­fined: the touch­ing por­traits of friends such as Patti Smith, Cindy Sher­man, Alan Lyne, and of “Jim” and “Tom” from Sausal­ito were re­placed by the ex­em­plary plas­tic­ity of body–builders like Lisa Lyon, by the sculp­tural mus­cles of his black mod­els, by the al­le­gor­i­cal power of gen­i­talia, and by show­biz stars, like Peter Gabriel, Andy Warhol, Is­abella Ros­sellini, or Iggy Pop, and the surreal flex­i­bil­ity of ath­letes, es­pe­cially the sex­ual sort. Who would stop once things were go­ing so well? De­spite the ex­tremely care­ful fin­ish of make–up and hair styling, Map­plethorpe was still light years from clas­si­cal beauty as de­fined by the Greeks and Ro­mans.

In his fi­nal years, Robert Map­plethorpe aban­doned the disor­derly lives of the hu­manoid for or­chids and white mar­ble. Per­haps, in his last ses­sions, he man­aged to reach this fan­ta­sised oth­er­where — that place where per­fec­tion no longer suf­fers the slight­est blem­ish — by cap­tur­ing images of sub­lime stat­ues of beau­ti­ful ado­les­cents, from Anti­nous to Mer­cury, and even a Sleep­ing Cupid. If only one could ask the artist, who stated that he did not like flow­ers and pre­ferred pic­tures of flow­ers to the flow­ers them­selves, whether he didn’t like men or women too much to trans­form them into images. Of all the faces pho­tographed by Robert Map­plethorpe, those that stand­out the most are his self–por­traits — images of the only be­ing it was im­pos­si­ble to love — and es­pe­cially that heartrend­ing Van­ity, taken a year be­fore he died, and which haunted him through­out the rest of his life ( a re­volver was the cult ac­ces­sory in his stu­dio stag­ings ): a man with hol­lowed out cheeks, hold­ing on to a cane dec­o­rated with a carved hu­man skull, still no doubt feel­ing guilty about “the flow­ers that die be­fore [ him ]”.

Un­ti­tled ( Sam I Love You and I Need you —

Hurry Home ), 1974.

Un­ti­tled ( Self–Por­trait ), 1973 ( from the invitation to a pre­view of the

Robert Map­plethorpe ex­hi­bi­tion at the Light Gallery, 6th Jan­uary, 1973 ).

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