Fascinating article in today’s Guardian by Jack Fritscher, who features prominently in the upcoming HBO/World of Wonder documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. The entire article is beautifully written – a tribute to both their passion and Robert Mapplethorpe’s enduring erotic legacy. I’ve selected a few choice excerpts below, but you can read the whole thing here.
Look at the pictures. Robert left a legacy of thousands of beautiful photographs of faces, flowers and fetishes when he died of Aids on 9 March 1989 at the age of 42. He had assaulted American concepts of race, sex, gender and morality.
He changed popular culture. The sort of sex pictures he dared to shoot are now shot every day by millions, minus his style, on Snapchat and Grindr. It is a victory that he is being celebrated this year in two major exhibitions in the US, and in the documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, out next month.
The romantic comedy of our bromance bloomed the instant Robert opened his gorgeous portfolio, mind and body for me when I was editor of Drummer, a San Francisco magazine targeted at gay men with an interest in leather. It was the Titanic 1970s, when the first-class party sped on, innocent of the iceberg of Aids that lay dead ahead. Everyone was polyamorous. He was more beautiful than the pouty Botticelli rock star Jim Morrison. We became bi-coastal lovers for more than two years and remained friends for ever. We fricated our edginess together. We were both re-quivering Catholics mixing the sacred and the profane. An acolyte of Rimbaud, he was keen on my book about Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. It was sex, love, art, letters, phonecalls and business. It was life.
He described ideal passion as “intelligent sex”. One night, during stoned pillow talk, he exhaled a stream of Kool menthol smoke: “I want to be a story told in beds at night around the world.” We both giggled.
In San Francisco in the late 1970s, Robert lived a free life shooting some of his most famous leather photographs. Liberated from the controlled environment of his Manhattan studio, and unobserved by critical New York eyes, he found joy in gonzo locations. I watched him at work in the Twin Peaks condo where he shot my other lover, physique champion Jim Enger. I drove him to scout the cement bunkers on the Marin Headlands for the “piss-photo” shoot that gave us Jim and Tom, Sausalito – a shot, now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which one man urinates into another’s mouth. I vouched for him when he wanted to shoot the dominatrix Cynthia Slater in the dark dungeon of the Catacombs fisting palace.
Robert was not just a photographer: he was an artist who was a photographer. He came alive, he said, after the Stonewall riot against the New York police, which began modern gay liberation in June 1969. He sped into the 1970s on charm, poppers and MDA. He made it his job to rub elbows and plough the pertinent at Warhol’s Factory, Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City.
When the white photographer began cruising gay black bars, he turned race into a personal sex fetish. He also hired professional black models like his lover Milton Moore, whose penis he made exquisite in the now world-famous 1981 photo Man in Polyester Suit. He told Boyd McDonald of the Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts that his favourite movie was Mandingo.
He sweated with white guilt trying to make his quest for black beauty keep him from the mortal sin of racism. He dedicated the last decade of his life to documenting famous black men, like the dancers Gregory Hines and Bill T Jones, while continuing to shoot unknown black models. He was an existential comedian. He knew that the most frightening thing in the world is a photo of a penis. He knew pictures of black men could add another level of terror to his work. So he upped the anxiety for his white liberal patrons and made the penises big and black. Provoking American paranoia, he took a side-on shot of a black model holding a gun just above his horizontal erection: Cock and Gun (1982). When his patrons blanched, he would double-dare them: “If you don’t like my pictures, perhaps you’re not as avant garde as you think.”
I intuited he would die young and wrote that about him in 1978. So I knew from the first to hold him fast. As I sit in my California garden among the tall calla lilies where Robert once sat, I miss his sweet face, lithe body and ironic voice, but his aura remains vivid – from his late-night phone calls, photos and letters.
“Jack,” he wrote on 26 July 1979, “if you’re not free for dinner tomorrow night, I’m going to beat you up. Love, Robert.” In his left-handed slant, he wrote on 20 April 1977: “I think you’re right about me needing a psychiatrist. I’m a male nymphomaniac. I’m never satisfied.” On 21 May 1978, as he was shooting photos of himself as both Satyr and Satan with horns on his head, to illustrate a leather-bound edition of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, he wrote: “I want to see the devil in us all. That’s my real turn-on.” It was a private remark that echoed what Robert once said about his flower photos: “Beauty and the devil are the same thing.”
Jack Fritscher is the author of Mapplethorpe: Assault With a Deadly Camera
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premieres April 4th on HBO and is out in the UK April 22nd. “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium” is at LACMA and the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 March-31 July.