"The Best Art In The World"
Robert Mapplethorpe as Faust, Patti Smith as Mary Magdalene
By Kyle Thomas Smith
Filmmaker Derek Jarman once described photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s life as “the story of Faust.” As any student of Goethe knows, Faust was an alchemist who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge and power. In Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Patricia Morrisroe describes how, shortly after dropping acid for the first time in the summer of 1966, Mapplethorpe stopped going to Mass and started attending Timothy Leary’s “Celebrations” at his League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) in Greenwich Village. As the nuns at Our Lady of the Snows in his native Queens might have warned, these wayward excursions would soon lead the fledgling artist to explore Satanism. As Morrisroe says, Mapplethorpe was “convinced that exploring the dark side would incite his imagination.” In 1967, twenty-year-old Mapplethorpe told his roommate Harry McCue that he had sold his soul to Lucifer so that he could become the rage of the art world and “destroy all the bullshit people” who looked down on his work at Pratt Institute.
That same summer, at a love-in in Tompkins Square Park, Mapplethorpe met a homeless waif and future rock star named Patti Smith. For the next five years, Mapplethorpe and Smith lived together, first as lovers and then as friends. Both were obsessed with becoming famous artists and, in their early creative efforts, studied all things macabre and paranormal together. Smith created poems and drawings to invoke the spirit of Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, the archetypal enfant terrible who lived in poverty and addiction while vagabonding across three continents and producing one of French literature’s greatest corpuses of poetry. Mapplethorpe’s forays into the occult led him to concoct early collages and installations that fused the themes of pornography, religion, homosexuality and guilt.
According to Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality “happened overnight” in the summer of 1968: “The gay thing wasn’t there and then suddenly it was.” This wasn’t the gospel truth, of course. Mapplethorpe had struggled with homosexual desires all his life and had been willing to do almost anything to conceal them from himself and others, going so far as to join the ROTC and pledge the Pershing Rifles fraternity in his freshman year at Pratt. Even years later, in the free-love days when Smith dumped Mapplethorpe to shack up with painter Howie Michels, Mapplethorpe screamed, “Please don’t go! If you go, I’ll become gay.” The next day, Smith came back to the apartment to collect her personal effects and found Mapplethorpe sitting amid piles of pictures that he’d clipped out of gay porn.
When Smith’s relationship with Michels fell apart, she discovered that Mapplethorpe was sleeping with a young man named Terry. “If I had been going out with another woman, it would have been different,” Mapplethorpe later recounted, “But Patti couldn’t compete with a man…She went crazy.” Smith did indeed become suicidal, so she decided to take a break from her life in New York. She scraped up a paycheck or two from her cashier job at Scribner’s and flew to Paris with her sister Linda. She spent four months there, hanging out with street musicians, picking pockets and stalking the boulevards mapped out in her treasured Rimbaud biographies.
This past May, my partner Julius and I were in Paris for Land 250, a collection of 40 years of Patti Smith’s photos, sketches, films, and written works on exhibit in the basement of Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain. The exhibition’s namesake is the Polaroid Land 250 camera, a throwback to Smith and Mapplethorpe’s salad days before the rocker started rock and the photographer boxed up his Polaroids in favor of a Hassebald 2 ¼-inch camera, his passport to art-world superstardom, which longtime lover Sam Wagstaff would give him in 1975.
Luridness was the name of the game at Land 250. There were Polaroid snapshots of crypts, headstones, Hendrix’s guitar, former lovers like Mapplethorpe, and literary mementos like Herman Hesse’s typewriter and Virginia Woolf’s bed in Bloomsbury. Found objects on display included a rock from the river Ouse where Woolf drowned herself. There was also a reconstruction of Smith’s pre-fame “dungeon” bedroom, where one could find notebooks full of jagged sketches, apocalyptic poems, and vicious crayon caricatures of Mapplethorpe and Smith’s consorts at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City.
Several of Foundation Cartier’s walls were awash in black-and-white video footage of Smith in various states of disarray and disorientation. Mapplethorpe directed and filmed one such short in which a bony, raven-haired Smith stands in a white room, wearing a virgin white nightgown: she sways in zombie-like slow motion, holding a Crucifix; candles burn before her, a demon’s head glares behind her. At age 7, Smith came down with scarlet fever and began having horrific visions on the scale of those in Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels. Although her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and her father a Christian fundamentalist, her parents did nothing to disqualify or “exorcise” these hallucinations, so, from an early age, Smith was free to channel them into poetry and the visual arts. Thus, it’s no coincidence that she was attracted to Rimbaud’s absinthe-soaked “disordering of the senses” or to Mapplethorpe’s unshakably Catholic visions of reprobation and damnation. One of Land 250’s main attractions was Smith’s letters to Mapplethorpe during her 1968 stay in Paris, where she wrote him many apotheoses of Rimbaud and attempted to come to terms with Mapplethorpe’s “coming out.”
A couple days after Julius and I returned home to New York, we went to The Whitney Museum of American Art to see Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids exhibit, which featured selections from the more than 1,500 Polaroid snapshots that the photographer took between 1970 and 1975. Before filmmaker Sandy Daley lent him a Polaroid camera in 1970, Mapplethorpe had shown no interest in photography. He did not regard it as an art or as anything more than the engine behind his own volumes of pornographic magazines and a favorite pastime of his prosaic engineer father, Harry Mapplethorpe. But tired of making mixed media installations that did not sell, Mapplethorpe developed a rabid fascination for the instant camera’s capacity to capture the instant. Art historian Sylvia Wolf writes that, for Mapplethorpe, “the Polaroid provided instant gratification, but more important it ignited a lifelong passion for using the camera to penetrate appearances and get at the complexity within.” Mapplethorpe would cut his teeth on the Polaroid before achieving his dream of becoming one of the most celebrated and reviled artists of his era.
Patti Smith was a principal subject of this period in Mapplethorpe’s art. Mapplethorpe was known for treating his models as puppets whom he could easily manipulate into compromising erotic and autoerotic scenarios. Such was not the case for Smith, however, who was anything but a passive player before his lens. Even when nude, she appears no more vulnerable than he does in his utterly commanding nude self-portraits. Instead, she was a combination of muse and soul mate, whose intense gaze and androgyny were a welcome departure from the frilly female magazine models of the day. Patti Smith’s raffish aspect dominates nearly a dozen of the Polaroid shots (mostly untitled) that were on exhibit at the Whitney, all taken just before Mapplethorpe’s breakout photo of Smith on the cover of her debut album, Horses. (1975)
“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” the old chestnut goes. Just like Andy Warhol and Madonna, Mapplethorpe wove Catholic imagery into some of his most controversial works. In the Polaroids exhibit, a shot of his long-haired model Michael’s face closely resembles that of many historic depictions of Christ at his last gasp on the Cross. Mapplethorpe also frequently exploited the highly erotic motif of St. Sebastian, the loin-clothed, tied-up, arrow-impaled youth, whose picture catalyzed writer Yukio Mishima’s first orgasm at age 12. At the Whitney, we witnessed several allusions to this image both in Mapplethorpe’s untitled self-portraits and instamatic shots of porn star Peter Berlin. In two portraits, there are also full-frontal and full-rear nude photos of his model Manfred, who is standing in a niche, duplicating the haughty contrapposto of Donatello’s David.
As a lapsed Catholic and Buddhist convert gazing at these Polaroids, I couldn’t help but wonder: Given all the Catholic iconography in his early and later work, was Patti Smith both a muse and an impenitent Magdalene for Mapplethorpe? Remember her opening line to Horses, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”?
Whether or not Mapplethorpe ever actually made a deal with the devil, he did indeed develop a creative acuity and achieve worldly success far beyond anything his early critics at Pratt ever could have imagined for him. His work not only pinned American Puritanism to the floor, but gave kinky sex a supreme seat in modern art. How could this erotic explosion come out of a former Knight of Columbus, who hadn’t even seen a dirty magazine until just before his freshman year of college?
In 1989, months before Mapplethorpe’s death, his mother Joan sent the parish priest, Father George Stack, to her son’s Bond Street apartment with the words: “Father, he has AIDS and I want him to die in a state of grace.” In his youth, Mapplethorpe used to drop by Father Stack’s office with portrait drawings he had made of the Madonna and Child. Father Stack later admitted that he found the drawings to be freaky, but he never told Robert this and always encouraged “this gentle, creative person surrounded by all these gung-ho macho types” to continue his artistic endeavors. Holding true to the seal of the confessional, we will most likely never know what the priest and artist discussed at their reunion nor do we know if Mapplethorpe, like Goethe’s Faust, formally broke the bond he claimed to have made with the Prince of Darkness almost a quarter century before. But in his homily at Mapplethorpe’s funeral at Our Lady of the Snows, Father Stack said: “The last time I spoke with Robert he said he tried to present what he saw as beautiful in the most truthful way possible.” He shared this same ideal with Patti Smith who can be seen sprinkling a likeness of his ashes on to her palm in her new film Dream of Life.
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Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the Editor of Sentient City: The Art of Urban Dharma and a frequent contributor to Edge Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito. He is preparing for the release of his novel, 85A. Visit his website at www.streetlegalplay.com