In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.
One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.
” May I help you, Madam?”
“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”
Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.
Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings: “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !”
The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…
A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.
Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979. I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.
But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil. Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.
The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!
The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.
Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.
Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.
Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.
He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:
“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”
In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.
Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.
His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.
XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see! (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)
A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing. Exactly how Robert should be remembered.
Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!
Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)
All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION