‘Beauty and the devil are the same thing.’ ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
An icon of twentieth century portraiture, Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait represents one of the very last self-representations he would make before his life and profound contribution to the history of art was tragically cut short in 1989 at the tender age of 42. Mapplethorpe is clad in a black turtle-neck that intentionally blends with the black background, and perhaps more jarringly, disembodies that brilliant, sharp mind inside his head from the decaying, ailing body. Clutched in his right hand is a walking cane, an open confession of physical frailty. More importantly, the cane is adorned with a shiny metal skull, turning the entire composition into a vanitas, aligning Mapplethorpe with other greats who had introspected their own inevitable death.
According to Mapplethorpe’s biographer Patricia Morrisroe, Edward Mapplethorpe, the artist’s brother, who assisted, had a strong, intuitive understanding of what Robert was aiming to achieve in this self-portrait, deliberately focusing on the hand with the skull cane and lending a soft blur to Mapplethorpe’s face (Mapplethorpe, 1995, p. 335.) The resulting image depicts Mapplethorpe in his most raw, candid and exposed, no longer using himself as a vessel for a political statement or socio-sexual commentary. Rather, he is a man aware of his own mortality, defiantly staring back at the camera, aware of his own fate and proud of his indelible legacy. ‘If I have to change my lifestyle,’ he remarked later in life, ‘I don’t want to live.’
It is befitting that Mapplethorpe chose to print this iconic portrait as a platinum print. As a rare, expensive and difficult-to-manipulate metal, platinum was reserved for Mapplethorpe’s favored images. Platinum lends a lush and painterly texture, a wide variety of mid-tone grays, and an ethereal glow that appears to emanate from within the image, presenting the artist in a deservedly dignified light. Two other platinum prints of this image are in the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
In his refined and classically-influenced style, he created a body of work that is perhaps most recognizable in his portraiture, particularly of himself, as exemplified by the current lot, among the last selfportraits Mapplethorpe would make in his career. Indeed, Self Portrait stands as Mapplethorpe’s greatest and most poignant self-portrait, boldly capping a career whose legacy has been reverberating in the art world decades later.
‘I’m looking for the unexpected’, Mapplethorpe once said. ‘I’m looking for the things I’ve never seen before.” In a relatively short career that stretched just over two decades, Mapplethorpe fearlessly explored and exposed the unseen. It was not merely that no subject was taboo. Rather, all taboo was subject: Mapplethorpe defied expectations and demanded that being young, openly gay and openly sexual was represented in art, and more importantly, acknowledged by the public. In her essay ‘Real’ Homosexuality: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photography in a Political Landscape, 2004, Deborah Sosower highlights the political implication of creating art with the full expectation that it be viewed publicly: ‘When art is displayed for an audience, the very act of placing a personal piece into the public sphere creates a forum for interactive and political dialogue and judgment. To present artwork in a public arena authorizes the audience to construe interpretation and assessment on that art.’ In that regard, Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre—particularly the intrepid explorations seen in his self-portraits—was anything but solipsistic.
Rather, it was meant to evoke, provoke, enrage, repel and seduce the viewers. For Mapplethorpe, his self-portraits were not about himself, but rather, about slapping awareness into his audience about the roles that he was at liberty to explore and embody.
By the time Self Portrait was taken, Mapplethorpe had explored a myriad of other modes to present himself. In one image, taken in 1980 (figure 1), Mapplethorpe is a carefree 1950s greaser with a cigarette coquettishly dangling from his lips; in another, taken the same year (figure 2), he is in drag make up, a glamorous modern-day disco queen incarnation of Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego Rrose Sélavy. In a 1983 image he is seen in militant gear, holding a rifle under the razor-sharp ends of a pentagram, assuming the pose and poise of Patsy Hearst’s infamous depiction as a door-kicking rebel. Self-portrait with horns, taken in 1985, (figure 3) depicts Mapplethorpe, dramatically underlit, a pair or horns rising out of his head; he is at once a lascivious devil and a Dionysian figure. Cunningly, Mapplethorpe once remarked, ‘Beauty and the devil are the same thing.’ In each and every self-portrait, Mapplethorpe took pleasure in stripping and dressing up different characters, donning different proverbial masks to emphasize the elasticity of the self and his own wish to keep his own ‘true’ self hidden. The year 1986 marked the year when Mapplethorpe was informed of his HIV positive status. Awareness of the disease, and more so, of its likely outcome, affected Mapplethorpe’s relationship to self-portraiture. No other image captures that as deftly and poignantly as the current lot, taken in 1988.