The juxtaposition of likes and opposites
Robert Mapplethorpe and Michelangelo
I had just taken a picture of my companion, a dark-skinned black man, with a white-painted come-to-life mime. The mimes posed still as statuary until they moved, startling us with laughter, and were tourist opportunities for snapshots.
Inside, Michelangelo statues and other classical statues were juxtaposed with photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, particularly of the models Ken Moody and Derrick Cross. These black models had shaved heads and sculptural definitions of muscles. The photographs included prominently, the cock, which seemed more jarring than the seventeen-foot naked David nearby.
The exhibit was unexpected. I wanted to see the statue of David. One of my most vivid memories was seeing The Pieta at the 1964 World’s Fair. The almost-breathing mother and her dead son, Jesus, amazed me, wrested from marble.
To look at Mapplethorpe’s photographs and then look at such statuary as Michaelangelo’s David was simultaneously startling and natural. I remember other things about that trip to Italy — my first taste of truffles comes to mind — but the beauty of Mapplethorpe and Michaelangelo was stunning.
Robert Mapplethorpe, for those who might be new to this photographer, lived and photographed in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He most controversially documented the S&M scene, although his photographs encompass a range of subjects.
Like Michaelangelo in his Renaissance time, Mapplethorpe incorporated the divine with the carnal. And like Mapplethorpe, Michaelangelo was controversial in his time. A painter was hired to cover up some of the visible genitalia in The Last Judgment, and Michaelangelo snuck portraits of living people into various characters in the great scene on the Vatican wall.
I lived in New York City in the 1970s, now regarded as a greatly creative time in the City’s history. I lived on the Upper West Side, knew would-be musicians and actors, and, went to showcases off off Broadway, and concerts of contemporary music at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a gritty time.I participated fully in the life of the City, and work also brought me into contact with a broad cross-section of people. I had one large deficit, however.
I had a good friend who lived within sight of CDBG, New York’s punk rock nightclub. We never participated in the downtown scene of The Factory, the art world, or punk music. I regret it now, but it was more ignorance than decision. (Although there were always jokes about being an uptown or downtown person.) I do remember one party at a downtown loft where the owner had left a corporate job to work on his sculpture, centered in the loft. For years, he had worked on the sculpture.
Patti Smith’s amazing biography Just Kids introduced me to much of that world. She is a fine writer and a wonderful documentarian. She met Robert Mapplethorpe on her first day in New York, and they scrabbled for a way to live in the City together and discover their art together.
Last evening I sat at dinner as a couple showed pictures of their professional ballet son, his body stretching to beautiful dimensions. He studied in New York City, the home of dance in America, while we talked of living on the West Coast. We talked about the body as a work of art, even as she was engaging on a modest book tour for her most recently published book.
It is foreign to me to make my body my art, although it is as much a work of our life as any “body of work” we might create.
It’s a little late to realize that, but we can do what we can do at whatever our age.
Robert Mapplethorpe, like many comets who blaze bright, died too young. It was AIDS. I remember that time, too, when a pall settled over the City, and the now-familiar fears of an unknown virus were the undercurrent. Then, we could point to the AIDS virus as the consequence of the behavior of excess, not a random scythe. The Puritan strain runs concurrently in our public life, its hypocrisy on full display.
I moved upstate, in part as a run to safety, though I only acknowledge that now. Sometimes it takes us forty years to figure out our reasons.
But I also was done, ready to trade in the City for country life, to see the stars in the Milky Way instead of consciously trying not to stare when passing Andy Warhol or Jackie Onassis in busy intersections.
But Mapplethorpe and Michaelangelo, I would travel to see them together again. Of course, I will see them together again, and I will travel to see them, just not yet.
The first picture in this story is Michaelangelo’s rendering of God reaching to touch the finger of Adam. We are all Adam. We can all take the spark of creativity and make it our own. It is in making art that we can be most in touch with the divine.
Maybe we can also be the one who touches.