Such dirty pretty things
Equally at home in downtown fetish bars and stylish uptown parties, Robert Mapplethorpe epitomised the decadence of 1980s New York. He died of Aids in 1989, but his perversely beautiful photographs live on, and are again on show in Britain. Peter Conrad meets his brother, lawyer and assistant and explores the legacy of his cruel and unusual relationshipsPeter Conrad
Sunday July 23, 2006
ObserverRobert Mapplethorpe photographed florid penises and penile flowers, leather-clad satyrs and frothy socialites. He was equally entranced by raunch and glamour, by the danger of a sexual underworld and the pampered allure of affluence. He commuted between waterfront dives in Greenwich Village, where he recruited performers for his sadomasochistic tableaux, and the salons of rich crones on Park Avenue, who enjoyed the sulphurous whiff of decadence he brought to their parties. In 1969 his friend Patti Smith wheedled a free room for him at the Chelsea Hotel, offering the prospect of future fame as collateral. When he died of Aids in 1989, the proceeds from sales of his prints left an estate worth millions of dollars. Mapplethorpe's career scaled the ladder of the Manhattan grid. Following his tracks last week, I began downtown in a dim, sweltering bar on the Bowery, then advanced uptown to a law office behind St Patrick's Cathedral, where the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation has its headquarters in an environment euphemised by thick carpets and the soothing whisper of air-conditioning. A gulf divides the two locations, measuring the disputed legacy of the man and the artist.
On the Bowery I met Mapplethorpe's younger brother Edward, a deferential, soft-spoken man whose right to exist was challenged by Robert. 'He was 13 years older,' Edward told me, 'so I had very faint memories of him. He left the suburbs and moved into Manhattan soon after I was born. He came home reluctantly, if at all - though he did turn up when I graduated from my Catholic high school, looking like Brando as the biker in The Wild One. There was this mystique to him, he represented the possibility of a life beyond the neighbourhood, outside the family. When I was 16 I made a trip in from Queens to see him, at his loft around the corner from here. The whole scene spooked me: the creaky freight elevator, all his Gothic furniture, the bed with black leather sheets in a chain-metal cage. He shoved his S & M pictures at me and said "Hey, how do you think Dad would react to this?"'
As a favour to their mother, Robert gave Edward work as an assistant in his studio. 'He was the boss, I was just an employee. I never got over my intimidation. All of us on the payroll used to snap to attention when we heard him coming up in the elevator. We stopped playing the pinball machine pretty quick!' Edward ingratiated himself emotionally by taking up with one of Robert's female models, a dominatrix who - repeating the inevitable move from the underground to entrepreneurial capitalism - had put aside her whips in order to design her own line of couture.
A crisis separated the brothers when Edward began to take photographs of his own. 'The two of us were in a group show at a gallery on Broadway. I didn't know how to tell him they'd chosen my pictures, so I ended up not saying anything. Then the invitation came, with the names in alphabetical order - and E is before R, so I got top billing. He went ape, he really reduced me. "I don't want no kid brother riding on my success," he said. "I won't have you using my name."' Edward meekly adopted their mother's maiden name, respecting Robert's monopoly; the would-be usurper, now called Ed Maxey, went into voluntary exile in Los Angeles.
He returned when Robert fell ill, welcomed as a carer and even an artistic surrogate. Edward, who pressed the shutter for Robert's last self-portrait, a close-up of his blank, receded eyes; standing behind the camera, he is clearly visible in his brother's iris. But the self-abnegating accomplice makes no creative claim. 'Hey no, it's his picture. It was always his concept, I was just his instrument. I guess he was a user - or maybe a manipulator. If you could help him, he knew how to be charming. The art was important, but so were fame and money.' Despite his resentment of Edward's career, Robert did bequeath him his cameras. 'Yeah, that last gesture was significant. I used his Hasselblad for a long while; right now it needs retiring.'
Though Robert spurned his family, Edward posthumously reabsorbed him into the clan. Their mother died from emphysema a few weeks after Robert; his ashes were buried in her coffin. Their father, staunch in his disapproval of what he called Robert's 'lifestyle', refused to allow his name to be carved on to the gravestone. When the old man died in 2001, Edward made amends. 'It was quite a business. To get Robert officially added, I had to get a letter from a Catholic priest, and another one from the funeral home to prove that his remains were in there too - because at the time it was done on the sly, and no one told the cemetery it was a double burial. Then I redesigned the whole stone.' Like a good transatlantic Irishman, he is pleased to have organised a family reunion under the sod.
Uptown, a different view of these post-mortem arrangements prevails. The Mapplethorpe Foundation is run by Michael Stout, a socially astute and wickedly funny lawyer who once presided over the tangled business dealings of Salvador Dali. 'Robert couldn't have cared less what happened to his ashes,' Stout told me at lunch in a restaurant where face-lifted East Side matrons paraded their poodles. 'When we discussed an estate plan, his primary focus was to disinherit his family. That's how the Foundation came about - to ensure that the money was spent to promote his work and prop up art museums, not to enrich individuals. His family wasn't bad. What he disliked was that they were ordinary.' The last word emerged with a shudder of distaste, softened by one of Stout's ripe chuckles.
'It's a shame,' Stout said, 'that sickness creates dependency. Almost at the last moments of Robert's life, his sisters appeared at the hospital in Boston. He was very touched by that, and he kind of croaked at me, "See that they get a picture of their choice." Which,' he sighed, 'I did.' Mapplethorpe's gofer Dimitri Levas - who began by scouting for the flowers and classical busts he photographed and ended as an editorial conscience - added his own confirmation. 'Robert once said to me that he couldn't be an artist and have that family, so he just cut them off.' Levas, possessing the eye of a decorative purist and the monkish demeanour of a puritan, approved of this wilful alienation.
Mapplethorpe replaced his family with an entourage of acolytes. Relationships were for him a theatre of power, like the leather-clad scenes of voluntary torment and abasement that he photographed; friends and associates had to be prepared to be used, and occasionally abused.
Dimitri Levas happily signed on for such duties. He was indispensable as a supplier of props, though Mapplethorpe (according to the biographer Patricia Morrisroe) seldom paid him and often denied him credit. Like an unrequited lover, Levas accepted the unequal balance of power.
'We had dinner together every night,' he tells me. 'Always at the same place, a hole in the wall off Washington Square. Occasionally he'd say he had a date with someone important, and I knew I wasn't invited; that was fine with me.'
Intimacy was strictly rationed. 'He'd get sex calls, and let me listen on the other phone in the studio. It was usually some timid, nerdy-sounding guy from, like, Brooklyn, saying he was having an orgy in his apartment and asking Robert to bring his camera. Once or twice I helped out when he photographed people having sex. I remember him complaining because he couldn't control all the thrashing about: "Too many arms and legs!"' The coital pictures please Levas when they are at their most austerely geometrical. 'Ah, there's one he did of a blow job: the arms form a perfect triangle.' This was Platonic love, as bodies strained to compose diagrams of spiritual aspiration.
In retrospect, the trophies Levas collected in Manhattan flea markets seem to have been the offerings of an abject, hopeless wooer. 'Usually I brought him flowers, though once I found a pair of little horns and glued them on his head.' Mapplethorpe photographed himself wearing this demonic accoutrement: he smirks like a lecherous Puck. 'It's true, he could be a devil. He'd attribute his opinions to others: he'd tell someone "Dimitri says your work is shit", and they'd confront me and I'd be mortified. You couldn't ever retaliate. If you teased him, he'd start shouting and get very belligerent. He photographed me once, standing under a skylight - the worst light in the world. It took him about two seconds.'
At the start of their association, Mapplethorpe shrewdly outmanoeuvred Stout by pleading to take his portrait, then sending an invoice for $5,000. 'Sure I protested. But he said he always paid my legal bills without question, so what could I do?' The portrait is a typical example of Mapplethorpian role-playing: it makes Stout, who is actually a benign jester, look baleful and adamantine. 'I miss his cruel humour,' said Stout. 'Does that make me a masochist? I remember going to see him at his loft and being introduced to some art dealers who were there. He said, "This is my lawyer. I won't offer him anything because he always arrives drunk." And I'd only had one Martini! Or there was this snake that someone gave him - I hated it. In the middle of a party, he'd say sort of languidly "Pinkie, hand me my snake." No one has ever called me Pinkie, it's not my nickname; he just made it up to see me squirm. And of course I had to pick up the ghastly thing.'
The more devious, deviant side of Mapplethorpe is confined to such personal reminiscences; the foundation prefers to publicise Mapplethorpe the cool aesthete, even though at the end he worried - as Levas told me - that his work was becoming too 'slick'. Merchants are licensed to produce 'stationery products' exploiting the brand. 'We're very excited about our new line of demitasses,' said Marisa Cardinale, who oversees these commercial operations. 'After all, Robert himself designed a set of dinner plates. And we're considering getting involved in apparel and jewellery.' Perhaps the aim is to mass-market the mesh underpants that he exhibited as sculptures in the 1970s, or the spiked cock rings, nipple clamps and slave collars with which he bedecked himself.
Edward has his own sacred memento of his brother - one of the skins he shed, a leather jacket. Robert wears it in an early self-portrait, with pomaded hair and a cigarette scornfully dangling from his mouth. 'I love that picture. He's a gay man, but he looks like a rock star. I found the jacket in the back of a closet after he passed, all rotted with mildew. I got it cleaned by Madame Paulette. She's great, but she costs a fortune.' Madame Paulette has premises on the Upper East Side, where staff clad in white hospital smocks offer to treat your couture, your house in the Hamptons, your yacht and even your private jet. Her window display advertises her proudest triumphs: the restoration of the Givenchy ball gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, the repair of the dresses from Princess Diana's wardrobe that were recently sold at Christie's. It was an odd but apt rite of passage for a jacket that had been the nocturnal uniform of a sexual adventurer, impregnated with smoke, filth and assorted body fluids - a symbol of the social ascent that was so desperately important to Mapplethorpe.
Rather than wearing the jacket, Edward conserves it as a relic, a profane equivalent of the Turin shroud. 'I've got one of his belts too. No, not the famous one with SHIT written across the buckle. Man, I wish I had that!' He looked fondly into the distance, as if trying to see a ghost, while I imagined Mapplethorpe in his fetish gear with his little finger crooked around one of the foundation's dainty demitasses. Hustler and dandy, urban outlaw and canny insider, self-destroyer and self-promoter, he summed up the snarled values and skewed aesthetics of the 1980s. His dreams of wealth and celebrity came true: is there anything more corrosive than success?
· 'Robert Mapplethorpe' opens at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh on Saturday and runs until 5 November
1946 Born 4 November on Long Island, New York into devout Roman Catholic family of English and Irish descent.
1962 Left home to study painting and sculpture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He graduated in 1970.
1970s Began to take photographs, including portraits for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. Photographed
Patti Smith with whom he lived, who later used the portrait for the cover of her 1975 debut album, Horses
1977 His first big shows in New York, featured images of flowers, male nudes and sadomasochistic imagery, motifs which recurred throughout his career.
1978 The explicit sadomasochistic images in his book X Portfolio sparked a national furore.
1988 Major Mapplethorpe exhibitions were held in New York, Philadelphia, Amsterdam and London. His photos were fetching $500,000 each.
1989 Died, aged 42, on 9 March from complications arising from Aids.