Robert Mapplethorpe has long been a contentious figure in the art world, with much of this debate focusing on whether or not his erotic/homoerotic photographs trespass the boundaries of pornography. This is a matter which becomes especially prejudiced by the fact that they often deal with the difficult subject of gay sadomasochism. Much of his other work, however, deals with more innocuous subjects like portraiture and floral studies. Whatever his subject matter, though, his photographs constantly sought to elicit, and so control, the beauty present in all that he observed, be it Richard Gere or a lily.
Patrica Morrisroe’s book manages to trace a well-balanced path through Mapplethorpe’s career from suburban student to New York star, often pausing to illuminate pertinent links between his life and art. For example, Mapplethorpe’s personal calculating manner is presented as an obvious impetus for his highly controlled, almost classical style. By not shying away from Mapplethorpe’s ‘darker’ pursuits, Morrisoe generates a more exacting image of this frequently disturbing artist. She renders Mapplethorpe with a shocking honesty, and as result he is frequently portrayed as being cold and detached. Indeed, if Morrisroe is to be believed, Mapplethorpe’s attitude towards unprotected sex after being infected with AIDS is nothing short of chilling.
Mapplethorpe is shown to be a man obsessed by money and fame, pursuing both remorselessly throughout his brief life, using anyone he could to achieve his aims. Paradoxically, though, his objectionable traits were balanced by a charisma that constantly drew people towards him. By examining this milieu, Morrisroe has also explored the intimate details of his long-term relationships, particularly with singer/poet Patti Smith and collector Sam Wagstaff.
Morrisroe has achieved a work of outstanding clarity. She provides not only an exhaustive, yet riveting, examination of a major artist’s life, but also manages to demythologise her subject along the way by careful avoidance of the usual clichés. Morrisroe presents Mapplethorpe – photographer or artist, pornographer or celebrity – stripped of his mask, his troubling face available for all to view in the harsh light of history. The only evident limitations to the overall success of this biography are Morrisroe’s occasional clumsy handling of academic material, and a few stumbling conclusions. This book could also have been improved with less of today’s almost obligatory snaps of the artist as a baby, and more extensive examples of his work. However, the carefully controlled pathos of Mapplethorpe’s decline into AIDS easily outweighs a few off comments.
Accessible yet engaging, this epitaph to a truly intriguing man is going to be hard to surpass.