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Robert Mapplethorpe
“Jennifer Jakobson, 1980 Leather Crotch”, 1980© The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe & me

As two retrospectives open in Paris, Robert Mapplethorpe's biographer reveals the photographer's obsession with Catholicism and an erotic legacy

It has been twenty-five years since the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe passed away, yet his controversial legacy is still met with curiosity and admiration. In Paris, the Grand Palais and the Musée Rodin are commemorating the anniversary with two major retrospective exhibitions.

In spite of his cult status, only a few people really knew the artist who introduced graphic homosexual erotica into museums. Patricia Morrisroe is one of those people. After almost twenty meetings with Mapplethorpe, this writer, who had been initially asked to write his profile, ended up publishing —at his request— the intimate and polemic biography of one of the most influential artists of the 21st century. Here Morrisoe shares her Mapplethorpe experiences, the six years it took to write the biography, and the times she found Mapplethorpe’s views “repellent.”

Dazed Digital: What do you recall from the first time you met Mapplethorpe?

Patricia Morrisroe: It was 1983. I had been assigned to do a profile of him for the London Sunday Times Magazine. I met him at his loft on Bond Street. He was sitting in a black leather chair looking like a movie star vampire — handsome, extremely pale, and otherworldly. A collection of Arts and Crafts pottery and various devil statues were carefully aligned on shelves. In the middle of the room was a mattress covered in black sheets. It was enclosed in a chicken wire cage.

When Mapplethorpe met a new person, he usually presented his most graphic photos as a way of testing them. At the time, I knew very little about Mapplethorpe, and since this was pre-Internet and I was on a tight deadline, I hadn’t had time to do much research.  I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at.  I think I probably said something inane like, “Oh, very interesting.”

DD: Did this help you see these raw images more objectively?

PM: Probably. Also, he shot them in such a cool, detached way that at first they didn’t seem obscene or pornographic, just strange and exotic.

DD: Why do you think Mapplethorpe chose you to write his biography?

PM: Mapplethorpe was an extremely talented artist as well as an intensely complicated person. I suspect I was the first legitimate writer to approach him. Mapplethorpe tended to judge people by how they looked, and he thought I looked like Patti Smith; he liked my eyes and my shoes, and that I had grown up Catholic. “Then we understand each other,” he said.

Mapplethorpe was attracted to the magic and mystery of the Catholic Mass, and the symmetry and harmony of the altar. Good and evil, light and dark, angels and devils — these themes all played out in his work.

"Many gay men weren’t overly thrilled with what he was trying to accomplish"

DD: Once he realised he was homosexual, why did he feel so attached to the sadomasochistic gay scene?

PM: It excited him, and he was drawn to the rituals, which, among other things, included copious amounts of drugs. Realizing that gay S&M practices hadn’t been photographed in an artistic way before, he found a subject matter that suited him. He loved sex. He loved photography, and now he could combine the two.  Also, it gave him a certain notoriety that elevated him above the pack.

DD: How did he manage to turn this marginal subculture into art?

PM: While the content was pornographic, the pictures transcended what we consider smut, because he adopted a formalist approach to even the most scandalous images. It should be mentioned that many gay men weren’t overly thrilled with what he was trying to accomplish. At a time before gay marriage, when most gay men were still in the closet, pictures of leather men in chains hanging upside down, or urinating in someone’s mouth, wasn’t considered helpful in furthering gay rights.

DD: Mapplethorpe's well-known obsession with black men left its trace in the famous Black Book. Nevertheless, your book recalls traces of racist behaviour towards them — including two of his black lovers. Why did he have this ambiguous attitude?

PM: For me, Mapplethorpe's racism was the toughest aspect of his personality.  Where did it come from? Certainly growing up in the US in the 50s would have given him plenty of exposure to it. He found the n word sexually stimulating, and used it liberally in relation to his lovers and models.  It was as if he didn’t see them as people but as objects – something that’s obvious in his photographs. I can’t look at the pictures without reflecting on the backstory, which is not a pretty one. Milton Moore (Man in Polyester Suit) was perhaps the great love of his life, but he considered him a “primitive.” Moore once said, “I think he saw me like a monkey in a zoo.”

DD: How did Mapplethorpe face AIDS?

PM: He was very brave, continuing to work until almost the very end.  He was, however, the furthest thing from an AIDS activist: he only decided at the last moment, and with much prodding and pushing from friends, to allocate money from his Foundation to AIDS research.

DD: How would you describe his legacy?

PM: He pushed boundaries in every area of his life; he turned pornography into art; he elevated photography to the level of painting; he opened the debate about art and censorship. Ultimately, he did everything he set out to do, and more, and he was only 42 when he died.