Perfection is somewhere else
“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 ).