November 4, 2009
By the time I met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) in the late 1980s, his body was wracked with AIDS and only faint traces of his bad-boy beauty remained. Many art stars traipsed through the not-for-profit art gallery at which I worked in San Francisco’s not-quite-yet hip SOMA neighborhood, several of whom, like Mapplethorpe, were caught up in the mid-’80s culture wars when it was discovered that the National Endowment for the Arts had funded exhibitions of their naughty artworks. “Is Mapplethorpe only out to shock?” asked the New York Times in a 1983 review of what it termed his “for-adults-only” photographs, many of which featured classically chiseled male bodies with various items and appendages inserted in one or another of several surprisingly elastic orifices, all photographed in sumptuous black and white. My knees shook when I asked Mapplethorpe if I could get him anything — but not because of the X-rated work that would leave a trail of censorship and litigation even after his premature death from AIDS. It was the photos of his roommate back in the ’70s that turned me into a starry-eyed fan girl. Although I longed to say, “You took the pictures of Patti Smith for her Horses album!” after he graciously accepted the soda I delivered to him, my shyness made me scuttle away.
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