Sexual perversity in Manhattan

Gordon Burn reads the fast life of a Satanic exploiter, obsessed with erotica and 'thwacked out of his gourd'; Mapplethorpe: A Biography by Patricia Morrisroe Macmillan, pounds

Gordon Burn
Friday 29 September 1995 23:02 BST

"I just hope I can live long enough to see the fame". Robert Mapplethorpe said this when he was dying of Aids in the late Eighties, the lament of a chronic publicity-hound who had always equated publicity with life itself. But fame had always been only one of his cruel addictions. The others were money and gay, sado-masochistic sex, and he lived in a fever of frustration until he was able to bring all three into alignment.

For a long time it was just the sex - bondage, and his special favourite, coprophilia, with hundreds, probably thousands, of men compulsively trawled for in the dungeons and felch-pits of lower Manhattan. The Mineshaft, The Anvil, The Toilet: these were his playgrounds. "Mapplethorpe's loft", Patricia Morrisroe writes in her biography, "had become a port-of-call for men with every conceivable sexual perversion, and they arrived with suitcases, and sometimes doctors' bags, filled with catheters, scalpels, syringes, needles, laxatives, hot water bottles, rope, handcuffs, and pills. They dressed up as women, SS troopers, and pigs".

Mapplethorpe's money worries disappeared when he was taken up by Sam Wagstaff, a New York curator and collector with a large inheritance to squander and an eye for artistic boy-toys like the "shy pornographer" Mapplethorpe. At the time of their meeting in 1972, mentor and protege were united in their disdain for photography, which they considered a "second-tier" art form; to the end, Mapplethorpe insisted he was an artist and not merely a photographer; he never printed his own pictures, and barely learned how to load a camera. He was useless as a painter; there were few takers for his Polaroids and junky "constructions" and he wasn't getting any younger, so what else was there to do? It was marijuana and cocaine in the mornings, and cocaine and Quaalude-fuelled sex sessions in the early hours, after which the piss freaks and penile flagellants, the leather boys and enema slaves stood for their post-coital pictures before being released back to the street. "It was a stalking animal thing", one of Mapplethorpe's (few surviving) subjects tells Morrisroe. "Robert was really interested in photographing people's private desires", says another. "He'd always tell you, 'Do it for Satan' ".

In this way Mapplethorpe started bringing back the news of a world he in many ways photographed into existence. Pictures that were considered too stomach-heaving to bang on the walls of even the most avant-garde galleries in the mid-Seventies were hanging in the Whitney in New York and the ICA in London a decade later.

Although he was determined not to die until he had witnessed the last vestige of fame, Mapplethorpe made his first appearance in a novel a year after his death in 1989. Parker Jagoda and his wife, Barbara, the central characters in Paul Theroux's thriller Chicago Loop, visit Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment" retrospective and rehearse most of the arguments, pro and anti, that Morrisroe sets out in a clear, balanced way in her book:

Parker was moving fast and still talking. "These pictures say 'I know these people and you don't'. 'These people will do anything for me' ... It's sexual snobbery", he said, his eye drawn to the hard black line that was the shadow of a clamp on a man's cock. Barbara was smiling. She said, "You're shocked", "If you're not, there's something wrong with you", Parker said.

Parker and Barbara, and the friend they meet up with for dinner, are young professionals: an architect, a model, a fashion photographer. City people; urban chatterers. Straights - the target audience for squalor and degradation aestheticised; made, if not beautiful, then at least chic: in every dream home a frisson.

Andy Warhol was Mapplethorpe's role model, but Warhol shunned him in the early days as an energy vampire and refused to sit next him near the end because he was "diseased". Like the Nothingness Himself, Mapplethorpe remained affectless, detached (and, unlike the Nothingness, thwacked out of his gourd: he had a coke habit that, even with a benefactor, he found it difficult to sustain). He was a cool observer in an arena of hot events, merciless in ditching people he considered to be of no further use to him. In his "black period", his callous odyssey in search of "Super-Nigger", the stud of his dreams, earned him a racist reputation.

"Robert's leitmotif was how unbelievably and impossibly stupid all [blacks] were", a friend of Mapplethorpe's said. "He called them 'gorillas' ". When he photographed his lover, Milton Moore, a schizophrenic who was later convicted for murdering a man with a lead pipe, he concentrated exclusively on his genitals; he made him wear a pillowcase over his head. Warhol's philosophy at least went from A to B and back again. Mapplethorpe's hardly got out of the traps, and can be summarised as follows: in blacks there is an inverse relationship between mental development and penis size; and the more money you have, the more creative you can be.

Mapplethorpe was a Wasp from the ultra-conservative neighbourhood of Floral Park, Queens; a college army cadet turned hippy peacenik; the son of a tropical fish breeder and Tuesday night bowler who went to her grave believing that Patti Smith, the punk priestess, was her "daughter-in- law".

"From his observations of the leather bars", Morrisroe writes, "he realised he was in a position to become the documentarian of the Seventies gay S-and-M scene, but ... he did not approach it as a voyeur, but as an active participant". It is clear, though, that Mapplethorpe's depersonalising and reifying technique worked to put a distance between himself and the objects of his scrutiny on the other side of the camera, so that he was effectively a super-tourist, in Susan Sontag's famous formulation, "an extension of the anthropologist, visiting the natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear".

Robert Mapplethorpe attempted to eroticise almost everything he photographed. His phallic obsession extended to the protruding pistils and stamens of tiger lilies and tuberoses and other hothouse flowers. He treated the flowers no differently from the men who modelled for him. He didn't know what to do with the flowers once he had taken their pictures, and since he didn't want the responsibility of watering them, he threw them in the garbage, where they wilted and died.

Love was impossible with him, one of his contemporaries says, "because the only people he wanted in his life were rich people, famous people, and people he could have sex with".

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in