Beautiful men engaged in sexually charged scenarios or posed classically within the frame beckon to the viewer. These tiny icons reveal the young artist in his most Caravaggioesque guise-naive, tender, randy, overripe, receptive, bristling with sexual potency, imperfect, but lush — almost taunting a receptive audience to provide a night's pleasure or for an evening's divertissement.
Exhibition Dates: 8 May – 1 June 1996
In the chilly silence of those perfect moments of Robert Mapplethorpe's mature work, all sense of humanity disappears as god and demiurge alike pose unabashedly before unleashing their desires - never cavorting, merely proffering, never offering closure, neither soothing nor abrasive, neither lubricious nor salubrious, merely fastidious. Nothing is left for the viewer to complement; he or she is merely shut out by the flawless array. Only a keen practitioner of the ancient Greek poetic device of ekphrasis — the telling of the stories behind the pictures — can humanize these illustrious synecdoches. But what of the first telling erotic impulse, the fevered sketch which evolved into glacial synopsis? The answer lies in the body of early Polaroid photographs which Robert Mapplethorpe took beginning in 1971. Scanning through the Polaroid images, a clarity of vision emerges, even in these earliest compositions, which would become the hallmark of the later work.
Image after image foretells the future. Just as some portrait photographers might utilize the Polaroid to "get the setting right" before committing the sitter to the permanency of film, Mapplethorpe extended this first flash over a sometimes five-year-long hiatus before returning to freeze his subject within the surface of the gelatin silver print. Beautiful men engaged in sexually charged scenarios or posed classically within the frame beckon to the viewer. These tiny icons reveal the young artist in his most Caravaggioesque guise-naive, tender, randy, overripe, receptive, bristling with sexual potency, imperfect, but lush — almost taunting a receptive audience to provide a night's pleasure or for an evening's divertissement. Perhaps the unbridled yearning of Mapplethorpe's youth was, for a time, complemented by the immediacy of the process itself, the small Polaroid camera allowing him intimate access to people and scenes which the cold rigidity of the tripod-mounted camera disallowed. Captured rather than posed, the modus encouraged the subjects within the familiarity of their surroundings to open themselves up to the eye of the camera as well as the eye of the photographer.
While Mapplethorpe's patron and lover, Sam Wagstaff, would become the subject of the artist's lens, the two pictures included in this exhibition present him, not as wizened Maecenas, but as a comely odalisque splayed out across the sheets, defiantly staring into the camera like Victorine Meurent in Manet's Olympia. An adjoining image focuses in sharply upon Wagstaff's glistening glans penis, throwing the entire remainder of the composition into murky shadow. Like some primordial lingam, Mapplethorpe offers up his lover's cock for the rest of the world to worship while, at the same time, establishing himself as proprietary. Unlike the cool taxonomy of the latter photographs of prodigious black erections, this work celebrates the demulcent eroticism of consummated love. The sequence of images which comprise the sexual predella of two swarthy lovers moves inexorably from feral kisses to fellatio, not clinical in perfection, but bestial in ferocity. Only in post coital scenes of the sequence do we glimpse the dispassion of the mature work minus only feeling of epidermal stimulation.
The frequent portraits of Patty Smith within the oeuvre hardly prepare the viewer for an early Polaroid of Smith as a demonic poet. Hair flying, eyes bugged out, shot through with equal parts of madness and rage, Mapplethorpe depicts his muse-lover from the true bottom of the human soul unfettered by the delicacies of civilized manners. In this simulacrum, the eloquent yet tortured voice of the poet has been given its true face. Mapplethorpe offers up his own image as the perfect foil to Patty Smith's dissolution, head thrown back, untamed, viscerally reacting to some intrusion. Perhaps even more psychologically telling is the image of the artist seated in his bathtub, reaching out for some companion, eager for engagement, fearless of the consequences. Moving from the Dionysiac to the Apollonian mode, the pensive portrait of a young blond boy is strangely affective when compared with Mapplethorpe's later cadres of ka/os kagathos. Something outside of the picture plane has captured his, and Mapplethorpe's, attention and becomes the most dynamic element in the work. Influenced, presumably, by stills from the Andy Warhol/ Paul Morrissey collaborative films Flesh (1968) and Trash (1969-70) as well as Warhol's own mesmerizing early classic Blow Job (1964), the totemic male beauty becomes the passive fodder for the manipulations of the artist. The poignancy of this portrait is unmatched by any other of Mapplethorpe's many image of this type.
Just as raw sexuality and combustible emotion pullulate through these early Polaroids, so to does humor. Whether it be the boy turned ass-upwards, metamorphosing into a sort of human volcano cum flower vase, or the tousle-topped fellow who gleefully dumps his genitalia out of his jeans straight into our faces, these images bespeak the young artist who aims for dispassion, but is unable to avoid being naughty, albeit for a moment. If there is a fulcrum around which a transition indeed takes place, it is the last remaining picture of a hand clutching at a black piece of cloth. Tense and gentle alike, this hand suggests the future. Poised, anxious, and, perhaps paradoxically, holding the future in his grip, Mapplethorpe still reveals his fears via the pulsing of the fingers. Robert Mapplethorpe was clearly aware of the direction his aesthetic credo was leading him in, inexorably drawn to the fame that would accompany the vision, and yet unsure what pains, what loses, would need to be suffered in the process. Right from the start, it was all there.
— Thomas Sokolowski, April, 1996, New York City.