- Tom- Tom
One of my most prized possessions is the large slip cased book of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos given me by Paul Monette. I first met Robert in the mid 1970s. Sam Wagstaff who was Robert’s mentor / lover invited me to his apartment at One Fifth Avenue to show him the Polaroid SX-70s I’d been making at Fire Island Pines during those years.
This is the shelf above my desk. The photo is by Don Whitman who shot men in nature back in the posing strap days. At times I’ve synthesized Robert’s perfected studio figures in settings Whitman employed so well. The tree drawing on wood is by Brian Kirchner, an artist friend who has also been a subject of my work.
That night at Sam’s, after he sorted through the Polaroids I’d brought, he told me he had a friend he wanted to see my work. Within the half hour, Robert arrived. I’d heard about Robert through mutual friends he’d shot and was aware that he was making a name for himself as an enfant terrible in the New York art world. I was just beginning my life as a painter sculptor then. The Polaroid photographs were what I did on weekends for fun.
Later that night, Sam took Robert and me to dinner at the Cedar Street Tavern, a favored hang out of the abstract expressionists for spirit fueled debates about their work. We were in a place whose walls echoed considerable art world history.
My intention in documenting life in the Pines was to show that we were the boys next door, no threat whatever, just healthy all American guys playing – with sex. That was my life. I was an artist using a simple tool to make a political statement. I was concerned that Robert was ruining my agenda, documenting men peeing in one another’s mouths and other things sure to shock the horses. What I learned that night was that we were both true to ourselves as artists – each of showing the world our private lives – each understanding the political nature of what we were doing. Sam Wagstaff, as wise as he was, advised me to stay the course – show what only I could show – my world behind closed doors.
Years later, a graduate student doing a dissertation on Robert’s and my work asked for my thoughts on how our work was related. I told him I saw the attacks on our sexual orientation to be two pronged. One charge was that queers were degenerates below discussion. Robert shed light on the dark side with highly studied and stylized images to show the beauty he saw that the world had trouble seeing. My work was a response to the other attack on us. We were thought frivolous and fey – not “real” men. My work was intended to challenge that charge and show that we were indeed men – now stronger than the bullies who had terrorized our childhoods.
Robert and I shared an attraction to black men. Robert put these neglected men on pedestals. My own attraction had a democratizing effect on my life. My physical attractions trumped the racist teachings of my culture. In fact, I knew and loved some of the men Robert shot and loved as well. And I also sought to show the beauty of black men.
Michael Denneny at St. Martin’s Press, the editor of my first published book, was the editor of Mapplethorpe’s gorgeous book of black men – the BLACK BOOK. I loved the way Robert saw the sculptural perfection of his subjects. We both appreciated the photographers who, in the formative years of photography, brought the craft to a high art. Their vision shaped ours. And Robert’s vision honed mine.
When one approaches a subject well mined by others, the challenge is to see more – see differently. Robert’s photos of black men were classic when they were made and remain so today. My own effort has been to catch the subject in a sublime moment. I could not have posed Marlon in this picture – I just watched him perform and was fortunate to have seen this.
As I shot Marlon in my studio – my cat Dickens came in to play a role. This studio shoot demonstrates a major difference between the way Robert and I worked. As a general matter, Robert exercised more control over the design of his images than I do. I know the expression, “you can’t herd cats.” I couldn’t give Dickens direction, but I like the way this shoot came out. The interaction between Marlon and Dickens in the photo marked in red rhymes their feline grace in an affectionate moment. The photo made it into my book, IN THE STUDIO.
I have also made direct quotes to Robert’s work in my own. Robert’s pedestaled figures refer to George Dureau, an artist we both knew and admired who put maimed men on pedestals in his photos. Walking down a beach on Maui with Carl, a very tanned white guy), we saw this tree stump. I asked Carl to climb up the tree to make the Bianchi version of the Mapplethorpe version of the Dureau version of the classic figure on a pedestal.
Conversations among artists have always been important for me. Invariably, when I see work I like, I find stories, intentions and sensibilities shared. The intersections of ideas at specific points in time fascinate me. Sam Wagstaff had a good idea about how art could effect change. I learned a lot from Sam and appreciate the work Robert did to get our gay sensibilities on the public stage.