Review of “Mapplethorpe: A Biography,” by Patricia Morrisroe
Patricia Morrisroe’s biography of Robert Mapplethorpe is a malicious, unpleasant book in which a collection of perfectly awful people are displayed in all their pettiness, self-importance, blind ambition and wild selfishness. You have to take a walk about once every 15 pages to counteract the feeling of intense sullied claustrophobia that sets in as you follow the repulsive behavior of this crowd. Like most mean-spirited gossip, the stuff here is funny, shocking, visceral, quick and horrendously engrossing. Mapplethorpe was the consummate seducer, and Morrisroe’s book is similarly enticing; it lures you in by rapid degrees, and once you have started it you have little choice but to follow through, even if your finer sensibilities resist the world she is narrating.
The book is also as truculent as biography gets. Though Morrisroe has mealy-mouthed moments of treading delicately, her general spirit of aggression makes those moments ridiculous; she is viciously direct about everything except sex, which provokes in her a tediously euphemistic vocabulary. Her illustration selection is ostentatiously prurient, as though to prevent you from scanning this volume for the dirty pleasure that other Mapplethorpe books may provide; a serious reader would need to buy a volume of the photos as a cross-reference (or know them all by heart), but Morrisroe is hard enough on the photography so that you are almost embarrassed to think of throwing away your $125 in this fashion.
Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 to a vaguely repressive Catholic family in Floral Park, Queens. He escaped this world as soon as he could, studying art at Pratt, where he met the poet and rock singer Patti Smith, who remained his truest companion. They were lovers for some time; when she left him, he began the voyage into gay identity that would be the cornerstone of his art and his life, though they continued for some time to share a loft at the Chelsea hotel. They were among the luminaries of a sparkling, demonic downtown art world based at the Chelsea and at Max’s Kansas City, the club of all clubs. Mapplethorpe worked at that time in a variety of media, but he ultimately settled on photography, and became famous for his work in three modes: exquisite neoclassical photos of flowers; portraits of the rich and famous and powerful people whose company he relished; and unabashed documents of the gay S&M scene. The flowers earned money; the portraits earned social position; and the S&M photos were the art, the place where all his passion was invested.
They remain shocking: One is never inured to the self-portrait with a bullwhip up his anus or the photo of a man forcing his finger up his urethra. But they always have a certain icy formality to them, a studied balance and clarity and detachment. Mapplethorpe was for some years the lover of the well-connected collector Sam Wagstaff, who helped to establish his grand reputation, but later in life he became obsessed with black men and had a series of more or less disastrous relationships with his ideal “primitive.” He was an electrifying but dark figure of steely determination and extravagant and increasingly erotic sexual appetites.
Like so many of his generation, he eventually developed AIDS and endured its various grotesqueries just as his career was skyrocketing (he made it, barely, to the opening of his exhibition at the Whitney). Shortly after his death in 1989, his grand retrospective, “The Perfect Moment,” became the center of a national debate on art and pornography; the director of the Corcoran Gallery canceled the show’s visit to Washington (and was subsequently pressured into resigning) and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director were brought before a court on obscenity charges (they were ultimately acquitted).
I am not a great Mapplethorpe fan (no one is any more): I think he’s a good photographer who sensationalized himself, got sensationalized by his friends, sought ridiculous hype while alive and has been hyped to death since he died. The attempts to censor his Perfect Moment exhibition have clearly given him a place in the American public consciousness that his skill as an artist could not have earned for him, and it is no doubt time for revisionist readings of his work that take him down a peg.
But Morrisroe’s assessment is not so much revisionist as hostile. The twin preoccupations with sex and artistic success that apparently drove Mapplethorpe onward are off-putting more in their scary high pitch than in the simple fact of their entanglement. Morrisroe loses this distinction and consistently undermines his work by reading it as nothing more than a manifestation of his icky life. She writes as though Mapplethorpe were the first man ever to create art as evidence of past seductions and the basis for new ones.
The tone of the book is uneven: Morrisroe writes rather wittily for a few pages, and then plunges into a kind of trademark randomness, in which she may either repeat information she has already given or allude to information her readers need and don’t have. She is fabulously provincial; her comments, for example, on the British high society in which Mapplethorpe sometimes moved reveal an overbearing slick vulgarity (Catherine Guinness is described as a “beer heiress”). She has an odd notion indeed of what her readers know: We get a detailed explanation of Stonewall, a solid introduction to “fisting” and a delineation of “fag hag,” but no explanation of the significance of lunch at Quo Vadis, though the restaurant’s name is dropped meaningfully, nor of the implications of Scalamandre pillows, and no IDs for Gregory Hines or Diana Vreeland. The words Apollonian and Dionysian are defined, but the meaning of coprophilia is only alluded to obliquely.
No one comes out of this book well, but if Mapplethorpe comes out badly, Patricia Morrisroe comes out even worse. In her rage to paint the triviality of her subjects, Morrisroe indulges in that same triviality (if she finds them all inconsequential, why exactly did she take the time and trouble to write 375 pages about them?). In her mockery of their frantic self-promotion, she rather baldly calls attention to the exercise in self-promotion that is this biography. In her enthusiastic narration of everyone’s nastiness, Patricia Morrisroe reveals a nastiness of her own. She is put off by her subjects’ lack of depth, but her book skims along the surface of lives that must have had their profundities and their complexities.
It is the biographer’s job to find the truth, or at least a truth, about his subject. That involves a profound investigation into character; but there is nothing profound about this book. Though the opening chapters are full of amateurish psychologizing about Mapplethorpe’s early experiences, Morrisroe never achieves even a shred of empathy for the photographer.
Halfway through the volume, she presents this: “In a rare moment of self-reflection, Mapplethorpe confided that his goal in sex, and in art, was to stop himself from feeling. ‘When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.'”
What was the impulse that made Mapplethorpe wish to renounce his existence and his humanity? And why isn’t Morrisroe more moved by this achingly sad remark? Where is her humanity? A bit later, she quotes Filles Larrain: “Once I went out to dinner with Robert, and a friend of mine suddenly asked him if he was happy. He looked at her as if she had suddenly started speaking Chinese. ‘Happiness?’ he said. ‘No . . . it’s not there for me.'”
Mapplethorpe is a fascinating figure: fascinating for his voracious hungers, for his energized priapic sentimentality and for the force he poured into his largely successful battle for success. The way that his illness propelled his career forward is a moral parable for the ’80s, a decade perhaps richer than any other in moral parables. The dim beat of AIDS sounds throughout the book; Morrisroe continually attaches her sources to the dates of their deaths, so that you feel at times that you are reading a document of a lost civilization. Stories in which people die before their time are, as a category, moving, and for all of Morrisroe’s pat judgments, she does, with an icy clarity that echoes the photographers’ mode, represent what she has found. Her intense dislike for Mapplethorpe does nothing to enable the pathos of his situation, but that pathos comes through despite her, and despite him.
He seems like a complete shit (no coprophilia puns intended), and she seems not much better: He was not a great artist, and she is a less accomplished one; but this book is curiously moving anyhow. Someone went from nothing to something to nothing again, and along the way he burned (at both ends) with a fantastic brilliance, and the shimmering afterglow he has left, though ultimately rather insignificant, is for the nonce as poignant as an autumn moon.