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One Thing About Robert Mapplethorpe

Megan Bradbury

One Thing About Robert Mapplethorpe


In the grounds of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the contemporary artist Michael Heizer, sitting in the cabin of a bulldozer, waves his cowboy hat and lassoes the air whilst dragging a twenty-four tonne granite slab over the manicured lawn.

This is ‘Dragged Mass’.

The commission is a breakthrough – a way to get things moving here, break apart the marbled hallways and the monotony of ancient art. The torn gully which scars the lawn and the heavy weight of mass symbolise the necessary destruction of old order.

Sam Wagstaff welcomes it with a loving embrace.

The mass sits there for days. Rain falls. The buckled gully becomes a muddy trench. The mass, which is supposed to sink majestically into the lawn, does not sink. Eventually, it is hauled away, blown up with dynamite and removed piece by piece.


In New York City Sam tours the downtown galleries. At night he tours the bars and clubs. This is a contrast from the world he’s left behind, the perfect green lawn (restored at great expense), the empty hallways and reverent air – stuffy and formulated, questions never asked. There, his body was just an empty, ancient vessel. Here, he can touch things, feel their weight.


Sam first sees Robert Mapplethorpe’s picture on the mantelpiece of a mutual friend. In the picture, Robert, dressed in a French sailor hat, smiles coyly at the camera.

Who is this? says Sam.

Robert Mapplethorpe.

This feeling is the same as art.

Sam gives Robert a camera and he tells him to take more pictures. They go away together to Fire Island, to European cities, and Robert takes photographs of Sam as he used to take photographs of other people. Sam doesn’t mind – it is the way Robert takes the photographs.


Sam becomes the subject of art. In Robert’s photographs, Sam is dressed up or not dressed at all. Sam in the bath, pulling faces in repose, a man about his toilette; or at the beach, dressed in nothing but a pair of white underpants and white sports socks; dressed in a disco shot, wearing black leather boots and hot-pants; the couple shots – artist and patron – they share the same birthday – Sam squatting in the corner of a white room and Robert standing over him, one arm leaning over his head, Robert, the skinny kid in loose denim jeans; the wedding picture, Robert behind, but it is always Robert’s face you’re drawn towards; the images spread across four eight-panel pages – cock bound and trussed in black leather cord – his or Robert’s – it’s not entirely clear – tied between the buttocks, twisted and fastened to the wrists, the front view, back view, side view.


At first, Sam doesn’t consider photographs to be works of art. They are more like historical documentation or reportage to him. It is Robert who changes his mind. Sam sees Edward Steichen’s ‘Flatiron Building’, the prow of the ship emerging through the mist, the dagger-sharp blackness of the tree branch cutting through the rain-drenched air. It looks like a painting, he thinks. There is that feeling again.

Sam collects all the photographs he can find. He goes to auctions with Robert – they rifle through the photographs. He chooses all the pictures no one else has considered, photographs of medical experiments and industrial scenes by anonymous photographers – he is not just looking for the name of a photographer but for the image itself. He drags home brown paper bags filled with photographs.


At the exhibition, Sam Wagstaff struggles with his bowtie. Get a grip on yourself, Sam.

He reads his own words in the exhibition catalogue: This exhibition is about pleasure, the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of seeing, like watching people dancing through an open window. They seem a little mad at first, until you realize they hear the song that you are watching.

Sam’s favourite photograph in the exhibition is Thomas Eakins’ ‘Male Nudes: Students at a Swimming Hole, 1883’. The picture shows a group of boys swimming in a lake. Each looks up at a young, fit boy who is cocked and ready, balanced on the edge of a rock, about to dive. Sam feels as though he comes to the scene by accident, strolling through a wood, the last days of summer, when the season has cooled, when the air has changed, when the day seems shorter than it should. The diver holds his position. His friends look on in admiration, frozen in time. A breeze blows in, not one of them moves. Water laps their skin. A beetle crawls across the diver’s toe. The sun shimmers on the water, catches the surface, catches the eye.

When Sam looks at the photograph he feels just the simple joy of witnessing something beautiful. These boys remain fixed – they won’t swim away, they will never grow old.

The other photographs depict the American wilderness – Niagara Falls, the Nevada desert, the beginnings of a Western railroad, working class portraits, medical experiments, industrial scenes. The spectacle of a Hippopotamus stuck behind bars with children looking on, geese flying low over an ocean, Lewis Carol’s ‘Little Girl’ lounging on a sofa, coy and perverse in the way she bends her knee and looks at the camera, knowing much more than she should. The madness of Boulogne’s  ‘Fright Mixed with Pain, Torture’ – the woman’s face seized with electrical pulses.

And here are Robert’s photographs:

‘Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977’, the leather-clad gimp pissing into another man’s mouth, the arch of piss, suspended in mid-air, the warm, fleshy mouth, which eternally holds the piss, black shadows, sharp against sun-bleached walls, the glint of sun reflecting off leather, the men stand and squat, suspended. And Robert’s ‘Tulips, New York, 1977’, freshly-cut, positioned in a vase, straight and true, except one, drooping off to the side.


The first time Sam saw Robert, Robert was in a photograph, dressed in a sailor suit.

The first time Sam met Robert, Sam said, I’m looking for someone to spoil, and Robert said, You’ve found him.

The first time Sam visited Robert’s studio, he saw a dressing gown pegged to the wall with a baguette protruding from the crotch.

The first time Sam saw Robert’s slides, their cosy scene was interrupted by Patti Smith’s screams coming from behind a partition wall.

The first time Sam met Patti, she was barely dressed, her hair a mess, she spoke in sweet profanities.

The first painting Patti made Sam think about was Munch’s ‘Scream’, how the painting attempts to depict the very thing it cannot, yet shows it perfectly.

The first thing Sam bought Robert was a camera. The second thing Sam bought Robert was an apartment far away from Patti.

Sam doesn’t know why he collects the way he does. He says that obsession, like any kind of love, is blinding.

Walter Benjamin says that the collector is the true resident of the interior. The collector dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one.

The camera observes and records passively, without intrusion, and yet it makes an argument by organising subjects into a two-dimensional plane within which Sam is made to understand.

Robert says that when he takes a photograph or when he has sex he disappears. Like when you are the artist or when you are the art itself, the focal point of everything, you cease to exist.

Robert isn’t here.

Sam looks for Robert in the tulip heads, the hard erect stalks, the black background, but there is only his own reflection in the glass.

When Sam’s mother dies, Robert is away in London. Sam sits beside her bed and takes her photograph. He photographs her face and her hands. He photographs the bed frame and the bedspread; he photographs the bedside table, her reading glasses, water glass, a vase containing roses. He photographs the view from her window and the way the curtains are tied. He photographs the paintings on the wall, the dressing gown hanging on the door, her slippers under the bed. The pictures will preserve a silence that doesn’t exist in reality, for there is noise coming in through the open window – traffic, glass bottles being dumped upon the sidewalk. He can hear his own heart beating and he can feel a nervous twitch in his knee, which pauses only when he stops to take a photograph. He takes more pictures. He thinks, If I can’t understand this thing for what it is, I’ll understand it in pieces. Then he thinks, Now that she is dead, Robert will have to come home for the funeral.

Sam sets up the studio – white walls, bright lights – these photographs will be in colour. Patti, in a good mood, sits on the floor, tosses the feather boa over her shoulder and picks up the kitten. She laughs at Sam who is watching her. She repositions her hat and holds up the kitten. She looks at the camera and smiles. Sam takes her picture.


When Robert finds out he is very, very angry. He yells at Sam, Don’t you know who we are? Iamtheartistandyouarethecollector! Sam and Patti feel very guilty. All the pictures belong to Robert, the master of their universe.


Robert’s studio on Bond Street has a high ceiling. It is a place where he can work. Robert sets up the place how he likes, creates a giant cage out of chicken wire, places his bed in the centre of the cage and lines it with black rubber sheets. He works how he lives. These factories are filled with artists. It is all about money, art, love and rent, all things are up for exchange – this is something Sam always says to Robert – remember who pays your rent.


Robert doesn’t always remember. He telephones Sam and lists all of the men he has been with and all of the places he has gone. He lists his collection of physical symptoms – tiredness, back pain, groin strain, lice, rashes, swellings. As he speaks, Sam imagines him twirling the phone cord around his fingers like a debutante and thinks, That’s me being wrapped around his little finger.

Jim Nelson arrives in the overnight delivery, a gift from Robert who is in San Francisco. He is slim, attractive and new to New York. Sam buys them a home on Long Island, a beautiful grand mansion called Oakleyville, which has its own woodland and a private beach. At weekends and in between shows Sam and Jim rest up here and feel very grand. One thing Jim wants to do is grow wild roses. Perhaps this is because Sam possesses lots of beautiful things and Jim does not. Sam doesn’t mind, except, when he thinks about the roses, he thinks about Robert’s flowers. Wherever Jim decides to try to plant the roses they just don’t grow. He tries them in a sunny spot and then a shady spot. He tries them by the perimeter wall and by the exterior wall of the house. He plants them too close to woodland and wild deer eat the bushes before anything can grow. All the time while they are in Manhattan, Jim can only think of the roses. He talks about them all the time to Sam. Jim is a hairdresser by trade. He has spent his adult life cutting things back but now the roses won’t grow.


When Sam’s photography collection is complete, he sells it to the Getty Museum for five million dollars. His critics say that this is self-sabotage. They say it is the action of a man who wants to build something up until he loves it so much he cannot help but despise it. They say the collection represents himself and it is himself he has come to despise.


Sam starts to collect American silver. He searches the auction rooms for silver, and he drags it back to his place in black plastic sacks. Sam raids the salerooms. He also stands on the Oakleyville beach and scours the sand for remains of ancient shipwrecks, collects the shards of silver that he finds and adds them to his collection. In the end he acquires a massive fortune – this is the best American silver collection this country has ever seen.


His critics say his collecting is a sign of early dementia – a Polish émigré wanting to possess more silverware than the Boston museum. Others say this is just an example of his capacity to love.

Sam lies dying in hospital. Robert comes to visit him but he cannot look at Sam. Sam is no longer beautiful. This thing has stolen his looks. He has become an ancient, empty vessel. Jim’s roses never grew. Sam finds it hard to speak. He manages to say to Patti – IfyouwantanyofmymoneybenicetoRobertbecauseI’mgivinghimeverything.


After Sam dies, he is placed in the Wagstaff family vault. He was a collector of art for so long and then he was the subject of art, and then he was the subject of history. He is reliant on the passionate whims of researchers who are always trying to solve the riddle of Robert Mapplethorpe.


Robert chose one of his own photographs for Sam’s memorial service. The photograph shows Sam staring defiantly into the distance. His neck muscles are taut. The area around his head is illuminated with light, like a halo. This Christ-like illumination makes the rest of his outline seem more defiant. He is very beautiful. He has a strong jaw and forehead. He is solid and weighty, like a statue or a monument.


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