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Tuesday
Feb012011

Robert Mapplethorpe & Sam Wagstaff: 24 Bond Street, 35 West 23rd, 1 Fifth Avenue

[9] Mapplethorpe by Andy Warhol, silkscreen, date unknown

PATTI SMITH: "ELEGIE"

"Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. In the 1980s he refined his aesthetic, photographing statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe's first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s, his mentor and lifetime companion, art curator Sam Wagstaff gave him $500,000 to buy the top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street, where he lived and had his shooting space. He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom." [1]

 

24 BOND STREET

[1]

[20]

[16] Dexter Dalwood - Robert Mapplethorpe's First Loft, oil on canvas, 1999

"In contrast to SoHo, which exemplified the spirit of the avant-garde, Bond Street remained stubbornly industrial. Mapplethorpe's neighborhood was home to D&D Salvage Company, Etna Tool & Die Corporation, a truck garage, and a gas station; a half-dozen derelicts from the nearby men's shelter routinely dozed on the sidewalk. The interior of his building was equally uninviting, and except for a flickering fluorescent ceiling light and a small wooden bench usually littered with Chinese menus, the lobby was dingy and bare; at the far end, a creaking wrought-iron elevator carried visitors to his loft on the fifth floor.

'The whole point is to try to integrate your life into your work if you're an artist,' Mapplethorpe later told House & Garden, and to this end, his earliest efforts at decorating were aimed at turning his bedroom into a sculptural environment. Mapplethorpe had always remained physically close to this work, living in an "art factory" and sleeping on a mattress that often doubled as a piece of art. He now transformed his bedroom into a cage by taking pieces of chicken wire and framing them in symmetrical square grids; the effect was similar to the screens he had used in his pornographic collages to separate the observer from the observed. This time, however, he had literally climbed behind the screen to become the central player in his own pornographic drama. Near the bed hung a "masturbation machine," which he had designed by surrounding a mirror with dozens of white lights that blinked off and on, like a carnival roulette wheel. The mirror served the same function as the Polaroid self-portraits; Mapplethorpe, like Narcissus, was infatuated with his own reflection, and he still maintained a juvenile curiosity about his body. The cage was a playpen of sorts, and Robert the insatiable child." [2]

Robert Mapplethorpe - Joe, 1978

[19] Robert Mapplethorpe - Larry Hunt, 1978

 

35 WEST 23RD STREET

[17]

"I walked with Robert to his new loft. He was no longer on Bond Street but lived in a spacious studio in an Art Deco building on Twenty-third Street, only two blocks from the Chelsea. He was optimistic and certain that he would survive, satisfied with his work, his success, and his possessions. 'I did all right, didn't I?' he said with pride. I panned the room with my eyes: an ivory Christ,  a white marble figure of the sleeping Cupid; Stickley armchairs and cabinet; a collection of rare Gustavsberg vases. His desk, for me, was the crown of his possessions. Designed by Gio Ponti, it was crafted of blond burl walnut with a cantilevered writing surface. Compartments lined in zebra wood were outfitted like an alter with small talismans and fountain pens.

Above the desk was a gold-and-silver triptych with the photograph he had taken of me in 1973 for the cover of Witt. He had chosen the one with the purest expression, reversing the negative and creating a mirror image, with a violet panel in the center. Violet had been our color, the color of the Persian necklace.

'Yes,' I said. "You did well.' [3]

[10]

"The earliest published account of Mapplethorpe's collection that I have found occurs in a feature story entitled `Collecting Arts and Crafts' published in the autumn 1978 issue of the magazine Nineteenth Century, a (now-defunct) publication of the Victorian Society of America. The article presents a `cross-section' of the `people who collect Arts and Crafts furniture', a cross-section that includes Mapplethorpe, the minimal artist Dan Flavin, and three married couples: Beth and David Cathers, Marcia and Bill Goodman, and Joan and Dane Wells. The article details the respective interests and collecting philosophies of these various individuals and couples. In the case of the Cathers, for example, `collecting has meant much more than mere acquisition of pieces. Continued reading and diligent study as well as visits to museums fill up their leisure hours.'

In contrast to the Cathers, the Goodmans are said to `appreciate the arts and crafts philosophy that things must be functional as well as beautiful. They find the[ir] circular table encourages greater ease of conversation at dinner.'

As against both the Cathers' diligent study of mission furniture and the Goodmans' appreciation of its practicality, Mapplethorpe stresses the subjective pleasures aroused for him by the act of collecting:

'As to why I collect ... collecting for me is an escape into fantasy. The furniture I collect relates to a certain kind of passion I feel within myself... it has for me an amorous, masculine quality that I don't find in other furniture. It is as exciting for me as early photographs or the Lucifer bronzes I collect.' [4] 

[11]

[2]

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"In ascribing a masculine quality to his Arts and Crafts furniture, Mapplethorpe recalls the discourse of manly functionalism that accompanied the original production of such furniture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Arts and Crafts movement, with its fraternal orders and artisan guilds, its boxy, monastic designs and refusal of gratuitous ornament, proposed a rugged, rough-hewn design for living. Gustav Stickley, a furniture maker who played an instrumental role in bringing Arts and Crafts to the United States, would call in 1904 for `material surroundings conducive to plain living and high thinking' and would further argue that the value of making one's own furniture was `not the work itself, so much as the making of the man'.

Mapplethorpe not only genders Arts and Crafts furniture masculine, he sets it within a discourse of fantasy and passion, of the exciting and the amorous. He connects his Stickley settles and Morris chairs not simply to manliness but to the homoerotic pleasures that may be derived from them. Mapplethorpe's claim that his collecting relates to `a certain kind of passion I feel within myself' and `an escape into fantasy' could not be more removed from the `plain living and high thinking' proposed by Stickley, or, for that matter, from the practicality of Bill and Marcia Goodman or the sober studiousness of Beth and David Cathers.

What might collecting Arts and Crafts furniture as `an escape into fantasy' look like? If the fantasy is Mapplethorpe's, it might look like the portrait of Philip Prioleau discussed above or, at a slightly earlier moment in Mapplethorpe's career as both a collector and a photographer, the fantasy might look like his 1978 portrait of Larry Hunt. Here, the bench (which is, to be precise, an oak hall bench produced by the firm of Gustav Stickley c. 1902) appears not in a domestic interior but in the space of Mapplethorpe's studio, the space of bare floorboards and reflective backdrops. Mapplethorpe takes the sturdiness and symmetry of the Stickley hall bench, its foursquare proportions and no-nonsense styling, and matches them to those of Larry Hunt. Consider, for example, how Hunt's chunky lumberjack boots and black leather jacket seem to answer the sturdy oak construction and leather seat of the bench or how the stacked diamond patterns of his bootlaces play off the horizontal insistence of the bench's metal circle pins." [4]

[13]

"The same hall bench (minus Larry Hunt) would reappear in House & Garden some ten years later and, shortly thereafter, as lot number 245 in the Christie's auction. As seen in House & Garden, the oak hall bench holds not a male body but a paisley shawl, placed just so, at its right edge. To the left of the bench is an oak costumer (c. 1907, by the firm of Gustave Stickley) on which hangs a black leather jacket. I like to think of that leather jacket as a displaced, but still visible, vestige of Larry Hunt and, more broadly, of the force of homoeroticism as it resided within the space of Mapplethorpe's collection.

The butch gay man seated on an Arts and Crafts bench is an image that Mapplethorpe would himself embody in the pages of the New York Times in a December 1981 article entitled `Living With Mission Furniture'. The question of how recognizable Mapplethorpe's gay identity and sartorial style would have been at this moment to readers of the New York Times depends on the associations those readers would have had with the name and work of Mapplethorpe in 1981, or with his boots, hair, pose and demeanour as captured in this photograph. One group of New York Times readers who would instantly have recognized Mapplethorpe's homosexuality were those who also subscribed to Mandate, a gay pornographic magazine which had run a feature story on the photographer the previous month and in which a picture of Mapplethorpe, wearing the same vest and boots, had appeared.

The pages of Mandate and those of the New York Times, a portrait of Larry Hunt and a layout in House & Garden. For Mapplethorpe, these were not contradictory forms of representation but intersecting ones. And the place where they intersected was Mapplethorpe's home and the collection assembled in it. Mapplethorpe's practice of collecting was not a project in connoisseurship or traditional art-historical study but a staging of alternative pleasures and fantasies, whether those involved a black man posed as a sexualized sculpture, a strapping lumberjack straddling a Stickley bench, or, most notoriously, one man fisting another on a leather chair. For all the attention (and panic) that has been directed at Mapplethorpe's photograph of Helmut and Brooks, it has gone unremarked that the `seat' upon which this sexual transaction unfolds is, in fact, a Morris chair, c. 1910-12." [4]

[14]

[15]

"Mapplethorpe used the objects in his collection—oak plant stands, Stickley hall benches, Morris chairs—to set a space, at once elegant and extravagantly kinky, for homosexual difference. Mapplethorpe's photography, like his collection of art and furniture, would never conform to the protocols of `plain living and high thinking'. Which brings us back, in a way, to Senator Helms's anxious fantasy about `two men of different races in an erotic pose on a marble-top table'. Where Mapplethorpe crossed the pleasures of fisting and furniture collecting in Helmut and Brooks, Helms collapsed a scene of interracial homoeroticism onto the burnished, luxuriant surface of a marble tabletop. Even as he gets all the visual details wrong, Helms intuits something of the way in which Mapplethorpe pictured homosexuality not simply as a sexual act or an individual identity but also as set of spaces, surfaces and objects, as a theatrical scene in which the backdrop and the props are no less important than the players.

In a 1982 interview, Michel Foucault would remark that `I think that what bothers those who are not gay about gayness is the gay life-style, not sex acts themselves ... It is the prospect that gays will create as yet unforeseen kinds of relationships that many people cannot tolerate.'

In remapping the spaces of both home and homosexuality, Mapplethorpe proposed a set of unforeseen relationships among bodies, objects and desires, relationships which had not heretofore been rendered visible within the art museum or the auction house. As much as he collected Lucifer bronzes or Stickley settees, Mapplethorpe might also be said to have collected various forms of homoerotic fantasy and corporeal sensation, forms which he set within the frame of photography. Mapplethorpe's collection of art and furniture, his marble bust of Antinous and his Morris chairs, were dispersed by Christie's auction house in October of 1989. But Mapplethorpe's other collection, his queer furnishings of desire, was composed in and through his photography.

Thanks to the public display and ever-expanding reproduction of Mapplethorpe's work, this collection continues to circulate within the precincts of both public and private culture, within the museum, the library and, not least, the living room." [4]

 

ONE FIFTH AVENUE

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[4]

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"Sam's apartment was Spartan, all white and nearly empty, with a tall avocado tree by the window overlooking Fifth Avenue. There was a massive prism that refracted the light, breaking it into rainbows cascading on the wall across from a white radiator. Robert placed me by the triangle. His hands trembled slightly as he readied to shoot. I stood.

The clouds kept moving back and forth. Something happened with his light meter and he became slightly agitated. He took a few shots. He abandoned the light meter. A cloud went by and the triangle disappeared. He said, 'You know, I really like the whiteness of the shirt. Can you take the jacket off?'

I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.

'It's back,' he said.

He took a few more shots.

'I got it.'

'How do you know?'

'I just know.'

He took twelve pictures that day.

Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. 'This one has the magic,' he said."

When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us." [3]

[18]

 

ARTWORKS CITED BY IMAGE; ALL IMAGES VIA VARIOUS SOURCES: SCREEN GRABS [1-9] TAKEN FROM THE FILM "BLACK WHITE & GRAY: A PORTRAIT OF SAM WAGSTAFF & ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE" BY JAMES CRUMP, 2007; IMAGES [10-15] TAKEN FROM HOUSE & GARDEN, JUNE 1988, STORY BY MARTIN FILLER; IMAGE [16] OF ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE'S FIRST LOFT, OIL ON CANVAS BY DEXTER DALWOOD, 1999; IMAGE [17] AND [19], AND TEXT [4] ALL TAKEN FROM THE ESSAY "MAPPLETHORPE'S LIVING ROOM: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE FURNISHING OF DESIRE" BY RICHARD MEYER, AS IT APPEARED IN OTHER OBJECTS OF DESIRE, 1999; TEXT [1] TAKEN FROM WIKIPEDIA; TEXT [2] TAKEN FROM "MAPPLETHORPE: A BIOGRAPHY" BY PATRICIA MORRISROE, 1997; TEXT [3] AS WRITTEN BY PATTI SMITH, TAKEN FROM "JUST KIDS", 2010; IMAGE [18] BY ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE, USED AS THE COVER FOR HORSES BY PATTI SMITH; IMAGE [20] BY BRIAN DUBEÉ, VIA NEW YORK DAILY PHOTO

THANK YOU TO LAUREN TENNENBAUM OF INDECOROUS TASTE, AND PATRICIA GAYE TAPP OF LITTLE AUGURY FOR THEIR HELP WITH THIS POST

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Reader Comments (1)

This is a gorgeous piece of work-so perfect to see it pulled together and reverenced. Mapplethorpe's genius of living art must have taken its toll. Burning so brightly-how that intensity can sustain itself I do not see. I will continue to find his work intimate, complex, mystic and compelling, I do hope the future is kind to him. pgt
February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGaye Tapp

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