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.