Robert Mapplethorpe is well known as the bad boy of the New York art world in the 1970s and 1980s, famous mainly for his studies of male nudes, his celebrity portraits and a long-time collaboration with the singer and poet Patti Smith. His frank accounts of homoerotic sexuality – in the wild days before HIV/AIDS – are well known. Some authorities were scandalised by Mapplethorpe's work, notably when a serious and respectable arts centre in Cincinnati was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for showing his pictures. But it has long been absurd to pigeonhole Mapplethorpe as merely a reporter from the sexual frontier. He was a much more important artist than that.
It has become conventional to describe Robert Mapplethorpe's flower studies in language superficially borrowed from Baudelaire: they are Les Fleurs du Mal, flowers that come from the same darkness as his explorations of the erotic. This line, in spite of a good kernel of truth, has led to some overripe expressions, mainly along the well-trodden path that flowers are the sexual organs of plants. The critic, Peter Conrad, wrote about Mapplethorpe's flower arrangements thus: "We cut off the reproductive organs of plants – scimitar-shaped lilies, swollen iris bulbs – and place them on display as items in our décor; art is the mutilation of botany."
There is obviously something to this. Mapplethorpe was profoundly interested in the erotic, and he found flowers a usable metaphor. He particularly liked hothouse plants, orchids and callas above all, which he often bought from Jack McNenny's flower shop called Gifts of Nature, at Sixth and Houston in New York. Why those? Because of their associations, and because the sickly smell and the too-ripe delicacy conjured up a world like that of Gauguin in Tahiti, of luxuriance and freedom from constraint.
Mapplethorpe himself acknowledged the connection. He once told the Print Collectors Newsletter in his studiedly offhand way, "My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing a cock. Basically, it's the same thing." And there are many curators who have taken the easy route, displaying one next to the other.
There were obviously – there are still – plenty of collectors who might find it awkward to have the explicit Man in Polyester Suit or the self-portrait with the bullwhip on the walls of the office or above the dining room table. The flower studies allowed Mapplethorpe to reach collectors he might otherwise miss, and that was an important factor in his consideration. Because Robert Mapplethorpe, for all his shocking reputation and his near-the-knuckle subject matter, was a canny and deliberate operator in the world of art. He loved flowers, and photographed them brilliantly. A frisson of their connection to sex was useful marketing. Flowers die very attractively, too, as he reminded us so often. See how the glorious one here curls in on itself as it begins to yield to time and gravity. That made them convenient. For Mapplethorpe the bad boy, a pocket-sized allusion to sex and death that yet remained wholly decent was a marketing gift.
But it was always more than that. It is hard to see (through all the bondage gear and the leather masks) just how classical a photographer Mapplethorpe was. It is an odd way to describe someone who broke the chains of convention, but it is true. Mapplethorpe's gifts were for lighting and texture, and he photographed nudes like statues and statues like nudes. A second aspect of the flowers was that they furnished him with perfect subjects for slow, deliberate contemplation and the perfection of his glorious photographic technique.
Mapplethorpe worked in Polaroid and at the outset of his career he made rough collages. But very quickly he realised that photographs are objects as well as descriptions, and this is how he made his reputation. In all the velvety variety of photographic expression, Mapplethorpe was a master. He printed more like a sculptor than a darkroom hack, looking for textures so sensual that we can feel them still.
His mentor and lover, Sam Wagstaff, had invented a role for himself as a curator largely on the repeated trick of juxtaposing pictures to make them bounce off each other for greater effect. Something of that can still be seen in his Book of Photographs, which some see as a relic of Mapplethorpe's eye as much as Wagstaff's. The great émigré picture editor, Stefan Lorant, used to have fun in the late 1930s with juxtapositions in his magazine Lilliput. Wagstaff did much the same. In the flower studies Mapplethorpe built a stock of pictures for juxtaposing. His flower studies are exquisite in themselves, but they become fully what they are only because of the other images he made.
Mapplethorpe was the cross-over artist to end all cross-over artists. He was a rough boy who liked to take drugs and have sex with strangers, but through discipline and an unerring understanding of the audiences he wanted to address, he moved into a cultural rank not far below that of Andy Warhol.
He died of complications of AIDS in 1989, and left behind a vapour-trail. One could argue that the entire market for photographic prints that we inhabit today represents a development of the collection that he and Wagstaff built and which now forms the core of the great collection of the Getty Museum in Malibu. They had the gift of asserting that their taste equated with good taste, and many obscure photographers who were the object of their enthusiasm in the late 1970s and 1980s are now acknowledged masters of the medium.
Mapplethorpe's obsession with fine printing, with expensive materials and perfect tone are all central to the modern appreciation of photography. At another level, Mapplethorpe's relentless conviction that his own life could be metaphorically interesting to others has also become a modern staple. He was born, by the way, in Floral Park. Floral Park, Queens, in fact. You couldn't make it up.
Francis Hodgson writes for the Financial Times about photography.
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