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Distorted Love: Mapplethorpe, the Neo/Classical Sculptural Black Nude, and Visual Cultures of Transatlantic Enslavement

Lind­say Nixon

Abstract: In the fall of 2016 and the win­ter of 2017, the Mon­tre­al Muse­um of Fine Arts exhib­it­ed a ret­ro­spec­tive of pho­tog­ra­phy by Robert Map­plethor­pe (1946-1989) enti­tled “Focus: Per­fec­tion.” Tenets of queer pos­si­bil­i­ty exhib­it­ed in the “Sculp­tur­al Body” por­tion of “Focus: Per­fec­tion” depict­ed a white moder­ni­ty that repro­duced the biopol­i­tics of the transat­lantic slave trade among con­tem­po­rary white and Black queer peo­ples in America—namely, in New York’s queer community—through the rein­force­ment and cir­cu­la­tion of imagery depict­ing sex­u­al­ized Black peo­ples in psy­chic and phys­i­cal bondage. With his pho­tographs depict­ing the body parts of Black men, Map­plethor­pe rei­fies the biopol­i­tics of the transat­lantic slave trade in two ways. First, the clas­si­cal use of mar­ble as sculp­tur­al mate­r­i­al, or in Mapplethorpe’s case the neo­clas­si­cal use of pho­tographed skin as sculp­tur­al mate­r­i­al that ref­er­ences the clas­si­cal use of mar­ble, adheres to aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples devised from West­ern, colo­nial dis­course that sex­u­al­ize and degrade Black bod­ies. Sec­ond­ly, Map­plethor­pe repro­duces what Michal Hatt has called a “struc­ture of spec­ta­tor­ship. By con­struct­ing Black men’s bod­ies in inher­ent oppo­si­tion to white­ness, no mat­ter how ide­al­ized, it is a white audi­ence that is pre­sumed as the patron of Mapplethorpe’s sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy of Black men. Giv­en the themes of sado­masochism through­out Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs of Black men, these images out­right ref­er­ence fan­tasies of dom­i­na­tion from an era transat­lantic enslave­ment in the U.S. With “Focus: Per­fec­tion,” the MMFA unwit­ting­ly con­doned Mapplethorpe’s por­tray­al of Black men in chat­tel bondage, avail­able to be owned by Mapplethorpe’s pre­sumed white view­er­ship through inti­mate knowl­edge of, and con­trol over, their bod­ies and sex­u­al lives.

Résumé: En automne 2016 et en hiv­er 2017, le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Mon­tréal a présen­té une rétro­spec­tive de la pho­togra­phie de Robert Map­plethor­pe (1946-1989) inti­t­ulée “Focus: Per­fec­tion.” Cer­tains principes de la pos­si­bil­ité queer exposés dans la sec­tion “Sculp­tur­al Body” de “Focus: Per­fec­tion” décrivaient une moder­nité blanche qui repro­dui­sait la biopoli­tique de la traite transat­lan­tique des esclaves par­mi les com­mu­nautés queer blanche et Noire en Amérique—spécifiquement dans la com­mu­nauté queer de New York—par le ren­force­ment et la cir­cu­la­tion d’une imagerie des Noirs sex­u­al­isés dans un asservisse­ment psy­chique et physique. A tra­vers ses pho­tos représen­tant les par­ties du corps d’hommes noirs, Map­pelthor­pe con­cré­tise les aspects biopoli­tiques de la traite transat­lan­tique des esclaves de deux manières. En pre­mier lieu, l’utilisation clas­sique du mar­bre comme matéri­au sculp­tur­al, ou dans le cas de Map­plethor­pe l’emploi clas­sique de la peau phographiée comme un matéri­au sculp­tur­al qui fait référence à l’emploi clas­sique du mar­bre, adhère à des principes esthé­tiques inspirés d’un dis­cours colo­nial occi­den­tal qui sex­u­alise et avilit les corps Noirs. En sec­ond lieu Map­plethor­pe repro­duit ce que Michael Hatt a appelé une “struc­ture de spec­ta­cle.” La con­struc­tion de corps d’hommes Noirs en oppo­si­tion inhérente à la couleur blanche, aus­si idéal­isée qu’elle puisse être, sug­gère bien que c’est un pub­lic blanc qui vient voir la pho­togra­phie sculp­turelle des hommes Noirs de Map­plethor­pe. Etant don­né les thèmes de sado­masochisme qui se trou­vent dans les pho­togra­phies d’hommes Noirs de Map­plethor­pe, ces images font directe­ment référence aux fan­taisies de dom­i­na­tion d’une ère d’asservissement transat­lan­tique aux Etats-Unis. Avec “Focus:Perfection,” le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Mon­tréal accepte sans le vouloir la représen­ta­tion par Map­plethor­pe d’hommes Noirs comme des biens pos­sédés, qui peu­vent être appro­priés par le pub­lic, selon toute vraisem­blance blanc, de Map­pelthor­pe grâce à la con­nais­sance intime et le con­trôle de leurs corps et de leur vie sexuelle.

In the fall of 2016 and the win­ter of 2017, the Mon­tre­al Muse­um of Fine Arts exhib­it­ed a ret­ro­spec­tive of pho­tog­ra­phy by Robert Map­plethor­pe (1946-1989) enti­tled “Focus: Per­fec­tion.” In Phillip Pri­oleau (Fig­ure 1), the pro­mo­tion­al image for the exhi­bi­tion, a Black man is pho­tographed turned away from view­er so only his back is vis­i­ble. His hands are reach­ing up and to his sides, part­ing a white cur­tain that also falls to each of his sides. The white­ness of the cur­tain is intend­ed to high­ly con­trast with the Black skin of the man pho­tographed, who bends his neck and extends it, fur­ther still, away from the view­er so it dis­ap­pears into the dark­ness of the part­ed curtain.

In Phillip Pri­oleau, the pho­tographed has been ren­dered face­less by pho­tog­ra­ph­er Map­plethor­pe. We, the view­er, know we are not look­ing at a por­trait because there is no face or pro­file present in the image. No human­i­ty, life, or per­son­al details rep­re­sent Phillip in all his com­plex­i­ties. Phillip has had his beau­ti­ful life erased by Map­plethor­pe: the way his fam­i­ly, cho­sen or oth­er­wise, was touched by the AIDS cri­sis (if he is, indeed, a gay man from New York like many of the oth­er men Map­plethor­pe pho­tographed) (“Focus: Per­fec­tion”); the his­to­ries of enslave­ment in his kin­ship lines; and the com­mu­ni­ties who loved him into the per­son he was when pho­tographed. Mapplethorpe’s ren­der­ing of Phillip as voice­less figure—and the MMFA’s prop­a­ga­tion of Phillip Pri­oleau as pro­mo­tion­al image—would turn out to be a bad omen for the rest of the show.

Focus: Per­fec­tion” depict­ed what José Este­ban Muñoz has called queer pos­si­bil­i­ty: utopic spaces where­in pre­vi­ous­ly “degen­er­ate” bod­ies regen­er­ate and come to life through rad­i­cal forms of queer self-mak­ing (to self-actu­al­ize a dis­rup­tion to nor­ma­tiv­i­ty at the embod­ied lev­el) (11). But the tenets of queer pos­si­bil­i­ty exhib­it­ed in the “Sculp­tur­al Body” por­tion of “Focus: Per­fec­tion” depict­ed a white moder­ni­ty (Lau­ria Mor­gensen 3) that repro­duces the biopol­i­tics of the transat­lantic slave trade among con­tem­po­rary white and Black queer peo­ples in America—namely, in New York’s queer community—through the rein­force­ment and cir­cu­la­tion of imagery depict­ing sex­u­al­ized Black peo­ples in psy­chic and phys­i­cal bondage.

The Neo/Classical Black Nude and Visual Cultures of Enslavement

Of the var­i­ous sec­tions of the gallery sec­tioned off for “Focus: Per­fec­tion,” cura­tors Britt Salvesen and Paul Mar­tinea chose to high­light a theme in Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs they called “the sculp­tur­al body” (Fig­ure 2):

Map­plethor­pe spec­u­lat­ed that if he had been born in an ear­li­er era, he might have been a sculp­tor rather than a pho­tog­ra­ph­er. In his cho­sen medi­um, Map­plethor­pe under­scored the pow­er­ful phys­i­cal pres­ence of his well-pro­por­tioned mod­els with an obses­sive atten­tion to detail—from the pre­ci­sion of their stat­uesque pos­es to the tech­ni­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion of the light­ing. While Mapplethorpe’s nude fig­ure stud­ies appear to be the cool and dis­tanced obser­va­tions of a pho­tog­ra­ph­er who prized per­fec­tion in form above all else, they also fuse a clas­si­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty with a pal­pa­ble sex­u­al inten­si­ty (“Focus: Perfection”).

Salvesen and Mar­tinea pre­sent­ed sev­er­al dense­ly dis­played sec­tions of Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs, argu­ing that they cap­ture the curves and lines of the human body pho­tographed as beau­ti­ful­ly as seen in renais­sance sculp­ture. How­ev­er, Mapplethorpe’s expres­sions of the sculp­tur­al body pre­dom­i­nant­ly fea­tur­ing Black men, save a few pho­tographs that pre­sent­ed hyper­whitened bod­ies and del­i­cate white flow­ers, to con­trast with the Black bod­ies present (Fig­ure 3). Indeed, there is a cer­tain tac­til­i­ty to Mapplethorpe’s pho­tog­ra­phy that makes it sculp­tur­al in the ways it is known to the view­er, an illu­sion of phys­i­cal­i­ty that Johann Got­tfried Herder has called the “tac­tile knowl­edge of bod­ies (34).” Mapplethorpe’s work is sculp­tur­al in nature because it is phys­i­cal­ly felt, as if you could reach out and move your hand over the bod­ies he portrays.

The cura­tors like­ly drew their posi­tion­ing of the Black body as sculp­tur­al medi­um from the pop­u­lar 1990s art book, The Black Book, a col­lec­tion of Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs of Black men. Salvesen and Mar­tinea boast that Map­plethor­pe is “one of the most influ­en­tial pho­tog­ra­phers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry … renown for his mas­ter­ful com­po­si­tions and sub­jects that have com­pelled new reflec­tion on ques­tions of gen­der, race and sex­u­al­i­ty” (“Focus: Per­fec­tion”). Curi­ous­ly, this is the only men­tion of race through­out the exhib­it, except for a copy of The Black Book in the gallery gift shop—curious because so much of the sculp­tur­al body is com­prised of pho­tographs of Black men. The Black Book con­tains pages and pages of close up shots of dif­fer­ent parts of Black bod­ies. Sev­er­al Black men are pho­tographed with­in its pages, posed and lit like stat­ues, stripped naked, and decon­tex­tu­al­ized of any iden­ti­ty out­side of their form.

The cura­tors argue that, using black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy, Map­plethor­pe inten­tion­al­ly dis­tort­ed, and per­haps per­vert­ed (con­sid­er­ing his vast body of work por­tray­ing gay BDSM sub­cul­tures), the val­ues and aes­thet­ics of sculp­tur­al clas­si­cism. Map­plethor­pe paid atten­tion to order, pro­por­tion, bal­ance, har­mo­ny, deco­rum, and avoid­ance of excess. His clear mas­tery of the for­mal aspects of his craft, his metic­u­lous pos­ing, fram­ing, and light­ing of sub­jects, all bring an afore­men­tioned sculp­tur­al tac­til­i­ty to his pho­tographs. Mapplethorpe’s pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects are por­trayed with an ele­gance and sym­me­try evoca­tive of Gre­co-Roman ide­al­iza­tions of the per­fect form (Hol­ber­ton). Yet Map­plethor­pe inten­tion­al­ly bor­rows from clas­si­cism here not to fur­ther val­orize the ideals of West­ern antiq­ui­ty but to des­e­crate them, pre­sent­ing instead his own queer ide­al (Katz 261). Classicism’s ide­al­iza­tions of white mas­culin­i­ties become a con­fronta­tion­al, homo­erot­ic imag­i­nary of Mapplethorpe’s devis­ing. In the vein of Eve Kosof­sky Sedg­wick, cura­tors Salvesen and Mar­tinea praise Map­plethor­pe as a vision­ary of “queer clas­si­cism” (Katz).

Queer here­in refers to, “the open mesh of pos­si­bil­i­ties, gaps, over­laps, dis­so­nances and res­o­nances, laps­es and excess­es of mean­ing when the con­stituent ele­ments of anyone’s gen­der aren’t made (or can’t be made) to sig­ni­fy mono­lith­i­cal­ly” (Kosof­sky Sedg­wick 8). It should be not­ed that queer has come to mean much more than gen­der deviance with­in aca­d­e­m­ic thought. Queer the­o­rist Lee Edel­man, for instant, would argue that “queer” is a posi­tion that has noth­ing to do with sex­u­al­i­ty and could be ascribed to any­one who resists intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty with­in the sym­bol­ic order; who pos­sess no (neolib­er­al) futures, only a cer­tain death slow­ly repeat­ing. In the vein if Edel­man, the queer could even be said to be Black indi­vid­u­als them­selves in post-slav­ery, anti-Black U.S.

But Sal­vensen and Mar­tinea are under­stand and apply “queer” in the style of Judith But­ler: as a dis­rup­tion of nor­ma­tive gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty. But­ler argues that gen­der dis­rup­tion is often enact­ed through a con­cert­ed, embod­ied resis­tance to gen­der performativity—a styl­ized rep­e­ti­tion of acts and dis­cur­sive­ly pre­de­ter­mined gen­der con­ven­tions. Queer lib­er­a­to­ry strate­gies can man­i­fest on the body through the dis­rup­tion of nor­ma­tive gen­der scripts, through self-deter­mined gen­der per­for­mance (self-mak­ing) (But­ler xii). But­ler was con­cerned with how iden­ti­ty man­i­fests through dis­cours­es, draw­ing from Foucault’s usage of the term to devel­op her own gen­dered the­o­ry about scripts. Fou­cault argued in his book The Arche­ol­o­gy of Knowl­edge that dis­cours­es are a man­ner of speak­ing. Words, speech, and lan­guage are cod­ed with nat­u­ral­ized social dif­fer­en­ti­a­tions, and there­fore reify hier­ar­chies of pow­er with­in social and insti­tu­tion­al relationships.

How­ev­er, in their cura­tion of a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of Mapplethorpe’s work under a theme of the “sculp­tur­al body” to exem­pli­fy his brand of “queer” clas­si­cism, Salvesen and Mar­tinea unin­tend­ed­ly repro­duced a visu­al cul­ture of transat­lantic enslave­ment par­tic­u­lar to the U.S. Name­ly, Map­plethor­pe decon­structs the bod­ies of Black men as mere­ly the sum of their phys­i­cal parts, and pri­mar­i­ly for a white spec­ta­tor­ship. The Black men, or rather the body parts of Black men, Map­plethor­pe presents with his sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy are stripped nude (Fig­ure 4-10), often with parts of their bod­ies like their but­tocks (Fig­ure 8) and penis­es (Fig­ure 10) promi­nent­ly and fetishis­ti­cal­ly lit and show­cased. The mod­els in Mapplethorpe’s “sculp­tur­al body” pho­tographs are just that: sub­jects lack­ing own­er­ship over their bod­ies, with­out sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, known to us through their tac­tile mate­ri­al­i­ty, and decid­ed­ly so, as Map­plethor­pe has metic­u­lous­ly framed, posed, light­ed, and shot the pho­tographs as such.

With his pho­tographs depict­ing the body parts of Black men, Map­plethor­pe rei­fies the biopol­i­tics of the transat­lantic slave trade in two ways. First, the clas­si­cal use of mar­ble as sculp­tur­al mate­r­i­al, or in Mapplethorpe’s case the neo­clas­si­cal use of pho­tographed skin as sculp­tur­al mate­r­i­al that ref­er­ences the clas­si­cal use of mar­ble, adheres to aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples devised from West­ern, colo­nial dis­course that sex­u­al­ize and degrade Black bod­ies (Nel­son). In draw­ing from the artis­tic con­ven­tions of the clas­si­cal peri­od, Map­plethor­pe ref­er­ences the white mar­ble often used as mate­r­i­al for clas­si­cal and sculp­ture, which art his­to­ri­an Char­maine Nel­son argues “func­tioned to medi­ate the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the racial­ized body in ways that pre­served a moral imper­a­tive essen­tial to the ideals of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry neo­clas­si­cism (Nel­son).” Clas­si­cal art denounced the bio­log­i­cal body, seen as the sex­u­al and racial body, denot­ed by the lack of any col­oration what­so­ev­er of the sculp­tur­al form (Nel­son). In order to present the Black body as ide­al­ized, divine muse for his neo­clas­si­cal sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy, Map­plethor­pe makes visu­al ref­er­ence to a West­ern log­ic of dom­i­nance that func­tions through dehu­man­iz­ing, racial­iz­ing, and degrad­ing Black peo­ples and com­mu­ni­ties. Map­plethor­pe has forced the Black men he pho­tographed to embody said con­no­ta­tions of racial­ized sexualization.

Map­plethor­pe also unwit­ting­ly makes visu­al ref­er­ence to 19th-cen­tu­ry neo­clas­si­cal pub­lic sculp­ture in the U.S. that depict­ed Black cit­i­zens eman­ci­pat­ing from the bondage of chat­tel slav­ery with the aid of white lib­er­al polit­i­cal fig­ures who sup­pos­ed­ly led the cru­sade for abo­li­tion (Hatt 429). The inten­tion behind eman­ci­pa­tion-era pub­lic sculp­ture depict­ing Black nudes was a lib­er­al one, ground­ed in the set­tler colo­nial, nation­al­is­tic desire to make mon­u­ment of Amer­i­can his­to­ries such as eman­ci­pa­tion (Hatt 205). One such sculp­ture is Thomas Ball’s Eman­ci­pa­tion Group (Fig­ure 11). Eman­ci­pa­tion Group depicts Abra­ham Lin­coln, a lone author­i­ta­tive fig­ure, clothed and regal, free­ing enslaved Black cit­i­zens who are depict­ed as a naked Black man crouch­ing at Lincoln’s feet. Michael Hatt argues that dur­ing the 1860s in the U.S., along­side the pass­ing of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion of 1863, pub­lic sculp­tures were pro­duced that depict­ed enslaved Black peo­ples with “ide­al … clas­si­cized” bod­ies (Hatt 198). Though the inten­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion-era sculp­tur­al nudes of enslaved Black peo­ples was to present the Black body in ide­al­ized form and there­fore emu­lat­ed the clas­si­cal form close­ly, the posi­tion­al­i­ty in Eman­ci­pa­tion Group of Lin­coln as tow­er­ing of the Black man he frees, who crouch­es at his feet, sig­ni­fies a sig­nif­i­cant pow­er dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between the two regard­less of the sculpture’s lib­er­al inten­tions. Sim­i­lar­ly, Map­plethor­pe makes him­self the good lib­er­al white (gay), who is sup­pos­ed­ly free­ing the gay Black men he pho­tographs from the the racial dynam­ics of 1980s U.S. Map­plethor­pe rei­fies his sub­ject posi­tion as own­er of the men he iron­i­cal­ly por­trays in bondage, though Sal­vensen and Mar­tinea assure the view­er again and again that the images are appre­cia­tive and liberating.

Hatt con­tends biopo­lit­i­cal con­trol was at the core of neo­clas­si­cal pub­lic sculp­ture depict­ing enslaved Black nudes in the U.S. pro­duced dur­ing the 1860s:

In order to under­stand what is at stake here we need to think of the nude as a set of bod­ies, a sys­tem of cor­po­re­al clas­si­fi­ca­tion that can dis­tin­guish the accept­able, con­trolled body from the exces­sive and inde­cent one. The nude is not sim­ply a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the body, but a mea­sure of cor­po­re­al deco­rum (Hatt 201).

The depic­tion of Black nudes in 19th-cen­tu­ry pub­lic sculp­ture was an under­hand­ed and iron­ic exer­tion of con­trol over eman­ci­pat­ed Black com­mu­ni­ties. Though 19th-cen­tu­ry pub­lic sculp­ture that depict­ed Black nudes was posi­tioned as por­tray­ing a lib­er­al project of free­ing enslaves Black cit­i­zens, sculp­tures like Eman­ci­pa­tion Group are a visu­al­iza­tion of new hier­ar­chies of pow­er in an era of eman­ci­pa­tion, where­in white cit­i­zens want­ed to rein­force their pow­er and priv­i­lege as a rul­ing class over Black com­mu­ni­ties. Fur­ther, the depic­tion of the Black nude as neo­clas­si­cal ide­al in eman­ci­pa­tion-era pub­lic sculp­ture was a false ide­al­iza­tion because of a “para­dox of recog­ni­tion (Hatt 205).” In order to depict Black peo­ples as equal to white peo­ples, and there­by wor­thy of eman­ci­pa­tion, the sculp­tur­al depic­tion of Black men in a clas­si­cal aes­thet­ic dis­tin­guish­es the bod­ies of Black men in oppo­si­tion to white men and masculinities—what Hatt calls “racial dif­fer­ence … under­stood through cor­po­re­al dif­fer­ence (Hatt 200).”

Map­plethor­pe, too, rei­fies the biopol­i­tics of the transat­lantic slave trade by repro­duc­ing what Michal Hatt has called a “struc­ture of spec­ta­tor­ship (Hatt 200).” By con­struct­ing Black men’s bod­ies in inher­ent oppo­si­tion to white­ness, no mat­ter how ide­al­ized, it is a white audi­ence that is pre­sumed as the patron of Mapplethorpe’s sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy of Black men. Black men’s body parts are decon­struct­ed for the con­sump­tive gaze of the white view­er, who seek to own the Black men pho­tographed by Map­plethor­pe through decon­struc­tion and inti­mate knowl­edge of their bod­ies. A psy­chic and sym­bol­ic por­tray­al of Black men in bondage is par­tial­ly the result of such a patron­age, spec­ta­tor­ship, and con­sump­tive gaze. Map­plethor­pe codes his brand of bondage and con­fronta­tion­al queer desire with a sex­u­al­ized con­sump­tion, what Hatt might argue con­sti­tutes an attempt to ren­der the Black body as ide­al while actu­al­ly dehu­man­iz­ing Black com­mu­ni­ties (Hatt 106).

An exam­ple of desire-cod­ed ide­al­iza­tion of a decon­struct­ed Black body can be seen in Mapplethorpe’s pho­to­graph Den­nis Speight, New York City, 1980 (Fig­ure 10). The image is a close-up of a ful­ly erect phal­lus, com­plete­ly removed from any con­text oth­er than to glo­ri­fy its size. Map­plethor­pe, and the white spec­ta­tor by proxy, both desires and is hor­ri­fied with this phal­lus that is so dif­fer­ent than a white man’s phal­lus (Fos­ter 448). The Black man pho­tographed in Den­nis Speight, New York City is not portrayed—only his phal­lus. By con­struct­ing a white spec­ta­tor­ship over the Black men present in Mapplethorpe’s sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy, spec­ta­tors who seek to decon­struct the Black men pho­tographed and exert visu­al own­er­ship, Map­plethor­pe unknow­ing­ly (but nev­er­the­less vio­lent­ly) ref­er­ences a his­to­ry of sex­u­al exploita­tion of Black men dur­ing the transat­lantic slave trade, where­in Black men were posi­tioned as inher­ent­ly sex­u­al­ly avail­able and con­sum­able (Fos­ter 449).

Dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry, pro-slav­ery Anglo-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties adopt­ed the rhetoric that Black men were hyper­sex­u­al, prone to “sex­u­al indul­gence,” and dri­ven by their desire for white women (Fos­ter 451). The Anglo-Amer­i­can mythos that Black men were crim­i­nal because of their inher­ent­ly sex­u­al nature and lack of self-con­trol cor­re­lat­ed with the appar­ent puri­ty, del­i­cate nature, and inno­cence of white women, who were por­trayed as vul­ner­a­ble to the desires of sup­pos­ed­ly sex­u­al­ly pre­co­cious Black men (Fos­ter 451-451). In real­i­ty, though white women were not social­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, or polit­i­cal­ly equal to white men in the U.S. dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry, they still wield­ed pow­er over enslaved Black peo­ples, and in vio­lent ways.

Using a selec­tion of sources on slav­ery such as news­pa­pers, court records, slave own­ers’ jour­nals, abo­li­tion­ist lit­er­a­ture, and the tes­ti­mo­ny of for­mer enslaved peo­ples, Thomas A. Fos­ter has argued that, “enslaved Black men [in the U.S.] were sex­u­al­ly assault­ed by both white men and white women,” though sex­u­al vio­lence per­pe­trat­ed against Black enslaved men is often down­played, under­rec­og­nized, and out­right ignored by schol­ars research­ing the transat­lantic slave trade (Fos­ter 447-448). Fos­ter found that, dur­ing ante­bel­lum slav­ery in the south­ern U.S., enslaved Black men were evi­denced to have endured sex­u­al assault in the form of “phys­i­cal pen­e­tra­tive assault, forced repro­duc­tion, sex­u­al coer­cion and manip­u­la­tion, and psy­chic abuse (Fos­ter 447).”

Mapplethorpe’s choice to objec­ti­fy, dehu­man­ize, and sex­u­al­ize the Black men in his sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy is an asser­tion of dom­i­na­tion over the Black body. Map­plethor­pe evokes a his­to­ry of clas­si­cal sculpture—and the anti-Black ide­olo­gies at its core—that con­tin­ue to make the Black male body an object inher­ent­ly avail­able for white own­er­ship through voyeuris­tic spec­ta­tor­ship. With his sculp­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy, whether intend­ed or not, Map­plethor­pe con­veys the Black body as some­thing other—as com­mod­i­fi­able and con­sum­able for a nor­ma­tive class of white U.S. citizens.

Queer Utopia and Transatlantic Enslavement

Focus: Per­fec­tion” exhibits what José Este­ban Muñoz has called queer pos­si­bil­i­ty and utopia: a space where­in pre­vi­ous­ly degen­er­ate (queer) bod­ies regen­er­ate and come to life through rad­i­cal, utopic forms of self-mak­ing (Muñoz 11). Sim­i­lar­ly, Jack Hal­ber­stam calls queer­ness a fierce love that can only be shared amongst the gen­der weirdos deemed deviant by cis- and het­ero-nor­ma­tive scripts that repro­duce on the body (Hal­ber­stam). Queer pos­si­bil­i­ty is the defi­ant dri­ve towards a queer utopia from with­in a colo­nial biopo­lit­i­cal death machine that attempts to erad­i­cate queer life through het­ero- and cis- nor­ma­tive modes of con­trol. At its core, queer pos­si­bil­i­ty imag­ines ways to self-actu­al­ize new worlds, out­side of the impo­si­tion of the West­ern gen­der bina­ry and its sub­se­quent het­ero­nor­ma­tive relationalities.

Map­plethor­pe has been wide­ly regard­ed as a queer art idol, his work often praised for cap­tur­ing the com­plex­i­ties of gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty as pre­sent­ed through his com­mu­ni­ty of friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors from the artis­tic hotbed of 1980s New York. Because Mapplethorpe’s body of work and whole life was tied up in New York’s Chelsea com­mu­ni­ty, which was hit par­tic­u­lar­ly hard by the AIDS cri­sis, his art has become can­on­ized as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this moment in queer his­to­ry. In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS cri­sis, right-wing homo­pho­bic dis­course was per­va­sive in the U.S., and art was a bat­tle­ground upon which anti-gay dis­cours­es were mobi­lized. The release of The Black Book in July 1988, a series of black-and-white pho­tographs shot by Map­plethor­pe fea­tur­ing Black men in eroti­cized clas­si­cal pos­es, caused an uproar of con­tro­ver­sy result­ing in reli­gious protests, the con­gress cut­ting mon­ey to artists, Sen­a­tor Jesse Helms crit­i­ciz­ing Map­plethor­pe by call­ing him a “known homo­sex­u­al,” and the Cor­co­ran Gallery of Art in Wash­ing­ton drop­ping a show of Mapplethorpe’s work (Cot­ter). Cul­tur­al thinkers and cura­tors haven’t shied away from con­nect­ing Mapplethorpe’s brand of queer clas­si­cism to polit­i­cal dis­course about AIDS in the 1980s, applaud­ing him for “hav­ing won the cul­ture wars (Tim­burg).”

Yet Mapplethorpe’s queer pos­si­bil­i­ty is a moder­ni­ty claimed for white queers only (Lau­ria Mor­gensen 3). The sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of queer life, and deam­i­na­tion and dom­i­na­tion of Black life, is most appar­ent in Mapplethorpe’s work through a com­par­i­son of the white and Black indi­vid­u­als he pho­tographed. The Black indi­vid­u­als in Mappelthorpe’s pho­tos are por­trayed in stark con­trast with the pho­tos of white sit­ters through­out the gallery, pre­sent­ed through a human­iz­ing and (queer) sub­ject-mak­ing lens for which Map­plethor­pe is known for. Mapplethorpe’s fetishis­tic and con­sump­tive por­tray­al of the Black body is most appar­ent in con­trast to his por­trai­ture fea­tur­ing mem­bers of New York City’s Chelsea neigh­bor­hood, where­in some of his sub­jects appear nude and semi-nude yet are not housed in the “red light” sec­tion of the gallery like many of the pho­tos fea­tur­ing nude Black bodies.

In Mapplethorpe’s por­trait of friend, some­times lover, and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Pat­ti Smith, Pat­ti Smith 1978 (Fig­ure 8), Smith is ani­mat­ed and engaged with the view­er (Smith). Smith’s pho­to­graph is framed in a way that acknowl­edges her envi­ron­ment and that she is an actor with­in it. A cat sits slight­ly behind Smith’s shoul­der in a win­dow sill, and we imag­ine her in a run-down Chelsea apart­ment. Smith gazes at us with exis­ten­tial angst, rais­ing a pair of scis­sors to her hair in a sort of anar­chic state­ment against its mate­ri­al­i­ty and all its loaded rep­re­sen­ta­tions of white fem­i­nin­i­ty. What’s clear is that Smith is in con­trol of her envi­ron­ment, engaged, and an actor in a world that is affect­ed by her presence.

In this uni­verse of actors and the act­ed upon, Bob Love, 1979 (Fig­ure 12) stands in stark con­trast to a work like Pat­ti Smith 1978, with the hol­low, vacant look of the sub­ject and the almost sci­en­tif­ic pos­tur­ing. Love is stripped naked, meant only to por­tray the glo­ri­fied pro­por­tions of his body, void of any oth­er con­text. Love’s body is lit in a way that illu­mi­nates the dark­ness of his skin while accen­tu­at­ing the curves of his body and the length of his penis. The pho­to is strik­ing­ly famil­iar to pho­tographs used for the “study” of sci­en­tif­ic racism, like the 1850 series com­mis­sioned by Swiss nat­u­ral­ist Louis Agas­siz, com­plet­ed by daguerreo­typ­ist Joseph Zealy, in an attempt to prove the the­o­ry of poly­ge­n­e­sis (Rogers).

Map­plethor­pe seemed to have a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the pos­ing of Black men con­tro­ver­sial­ly to evoke his­to­ries of transat­lantic slav­ery and anti-Black racism. As Wes­ley Mor­ris has commented:

To spend time with Mapplethorpe’s work now is to find in it a kind of dis­tort­ed love—what that Ger­man guy came all the way to Amer­i­ca to dis­cov­er. Map­plethor­pe found most bod­ies beau­ti­ful and oth­er­world­ly, but espe­cial­ly black ones. He lit dark skin so it looked like wet paint and arranged sub­jects until they became fur­ni­ture or evoked slave auc­tions. That naïve, dehu­man­iz­ing won­der com­pli­cates what, at the time, was the rad­i­cal, defi­ant feat of inscrib­ing black men—black gay men—into por­trai­ture. It strikes a pecu­liar­ly foun­da­tion­al Amer­i­can note: This was anoth­er white man look­ing at black men, with effron­tery but also with want. You can locate a sense of own­er­ship, of pos­ses­sion, in many of the images. Two of Mapplethorpe’s last rela­tion­ships were with black men. Any eroti­cism in the pho­tos might have come from the pos­si­bil­i­ty that, sex­u­al­ly, he him­self was pos­sessed (Mor­ris).

The evoked slave auc­tion Mor­ris speaks to is undoubt­ed­ly Hood­ed Man (Fig­ure 13). Hood­ed Man is a vis­cer­al pho­to­graph, por­tray­ing a hood­ed Black man who is, again, in bondage. Despite the intense sub­ject mat­ter, it would seem cura­tors Salvesen and Mar­tinea were over­tak­en by an erot­ic fas­ci­na­tion with the pho­to­graph much like Map­plethor­pe, as it was housed in “red light” por­tion of the gallery, com­plete with con­tent warn­ings and sur­round­ed by work that dis­played graph­ic sado­masochis­tic acts.

Hood­ed Man is a dif­fi­cult image to unpack. The man pho­tographed has been sym­bol­i­cal­ly bound and dis­played, as if at an auc­tion of enslaved peo­ples, ready to be inspect­ed for sale. What makes the Hood­ed Man even more com­plex is its homo­erot­ic under­tones. In the cat­a­logue for the “Focus: Per­fec­tion,” Jonathan D. Katz even goes so far as to com­pare the pho­tographed fig­ure to his “leg­endary phal­lus (Katz 257),” cit­ing that Map­plethor­pe has in essence trans­formed the figure’s body into a giant, uncir­cum­cised penis.

The hyper­sex­u­al­iza­tion of Black men in the U.S. dur­ing the transat­lantic slave trade and con­se­quent social atti­tudes fre­quent­ly led to the phal­lic abuse of enslaved Black men, often in the form of cas­tra­tion or oth­er sex­u­al­ized forms of abuse such as sex­u­al-sado­masochis­tic whip­ping of enslaved peo­ples and forc­ing enslaved men to pro­cre­ate (Fos­ter 451). Giv­en the themes of sado­masochism through­out Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs of Black men, these images out­right ref­er­ence “fan­tasies of dom­i­na­tion” from an era transat­lantic enslave­ment in the U.S. Map­plethor­pe por­trays Black men in bondage, who are now avail­able to be owned by Mapplethorpe’s pre­sumed white view­er­ship through inti­mate knowl­edge of, and con­trol over, their bod­ies and sex­u­al lives (Fos­ter 450).

By evok­ing his­to­ries of transat­lantic enslave­ment in his pho­tographs depict­ing Black men, Hood­ed Man is ren­dered akin to colo­nial­ly legit­i­mat­ed sex­u­al vio­lence. Map­plethor­pe and the Black men he pho­tographs are not equals uni­fied under a shared vision of queer utopia. In fact, the open cir­cu­la­tion of sex­u­al desire as some­thing to be freely expressed with­in queer com­mu­ni­ty, an assumed lim­it­less carte blanche of sex­u­al expres­siv­i­ty, has opened the space for Map­plethor­pe to project his own eth­ic of dom­i­na­tion on the Black men he pho­tographed and sought to con­sume through his cam­era lens. Fur­ther, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics sur­round­ing Mapplethorpe’s life as a queer man in 1990s New York dur­ing the AIDS cri­sis are like­ly what long shel­tered him from cri­tique about his racial­ized and sex­u­al­ized depic­tions of Black men among white-dom­i­nat­ed art indus­tries, though cri­tique of Map­plethor­pe has been pro­lif­ic among Black communities.


The fact that fetishis­tic por­tray­als of the Black com­mu­ni­ites are still being shown in major art insti­tu­tions in 2017, with lit­tle to no atten­tive­ness to issues of race, is trou­bling. Black artists and cul­tur­al thinkers have been speak­ing to the high­ly deroga­to­ry nature of Mapplethorpe’s work for decades. Notably, from 1991 through 1993, Glenn Ligon cre­at­ed a body of work called Notes on the Mar­gin of the Black Book (Fig­ure 14), now housed in the Guggen­heim per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Ligon reflect­ed on see­ing Mapplethorpe’s work in 1986, stat­ing that he saw the men in The Black Book were “ambiva­lent,” “de-con­tex­tu­al­ized,” and “objects for Mapplethorpe’s cam­era.” After see­ing Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs of Black men, Ligon com­piled pos­si­ble respons­es to Mapplethorpe’s work—some from inter­views with peers, and oth­ers pulled from Black the­o­rists and activists. Ligon presents the respons­es he com­piled in pan­els posi­tioned in between images from pages of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, the mar­gins here denot­ing both the phys­i­cal space of the book and the voic­es who Map­plethor­pe pushed to the mar­gins with his representations.

Know­ing Ligon’s pow­er­ful response to Mapplethorpe’s Black Book has been rec­og­nized and col­lect­ed by such a promi­nent gallery rais­es the ques­tion of why Mapplethorpe’s work was curat­ed around the (Black) sculp­tur­al body, at all? Some might argue that a repar­a­tive project seek­ing out pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of queer love and life in Mapplethorpe’s work is pos­si­ble. But this is the ulti­mate gaslight of queer utopias, isn’t it? Queer utopia in Mapplethorpe’s art is defined by a white spec­ta­tor­ship and sen­si­bly that uncon­scious­ly rein­forces white suprema­cist struc­tur­al pow­er in sup­pos­ed­ly rad­i­cal queer aes­thet­ics, includ­ing lega­cy of Black death asso­ci­at­ed with the con­tem­po­rary biopol­i­tics of transat­lantic enslavement.

Jin Har­ita­worn has traced this rela­tion­ship between the gen­er­a­tion of queer white life and the death of racial­ized life, describ­ing how “for­mer­ly degen­er­ate [queer] bod­ies come to life” in class-poor neigh­bor­hoods often pop­u­lat­ed by racial­ized com­mu­ni­ties (such as Chelsea, New York where Map­plethor­pe resided), and how these regen­er­a­tive process­es result in the social death of low income com­mu­ni­ties of colour who are dis­placed by queer gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs repro­duce a visu­al cul­ture of enslave­ment and anti-Black racism in the U.S., derived from a long his­to­ry of transat­lantic slav­ery. Social inequal­i­ty is per­pet­u­at­ed with­in and among queer peo­ples, a phe­nom­e­na that has been called queer necropolitics—the dif­fer­en­tial embod­ied life of queers of colour and queer white set­tlers (Har­ita­worn, Adi Kunts­man, and Sil­via Posocco).

The Black men in Mapplethorpe’s pho­tographs are ani­mat­ed corpses, ghosts even: extinct, dying, and of the past—incapable of enact­ing and embody­ing the sex­u­al and gen­der moder­ni­ty of white queer com­mu­ni­ties (Lau­ria Mor­gensen). Mapplethorpe’s queer utopia is irres­pirable from Black death. Here, in Mapplethorpe’s Chelsea, Black men are reduced to the sum of their body parts, biopo­lit­i­cal­ly and mate­ri­al­ly bound to the death dri­ve ascribed to Black com­mu­ni­ties in the U.S. resul­tant of a his­to­ry of enslave­ment with­in its bor­ders (Sex­ton 27, 28).

Why do we return to Mapplethorpe’s work at all, know­ing the trou­bled images that exist in his cat­a­logue? Know­ing that, even from a repar­a­tive stand­point, Mapplethorpe’s work is Black death repeat­ing itself, for­ev­er (Edel­man 4). With a Map­plethor­pe biopic com­ing out this year, per­haps it’s time for queer com­mu­ni­ties to ask how we can be respon­si­ble to our Black queer kin in refus­ing the cir­cu­la­tion of an aes­thet­ic of bondage and enslave­ment. How­ev­er dif­fi­cult, per­haps it’s time to let go of the white spec­ta­tor­ship the defines Mapplethorpe’s work and queer aes­thet­ics, generally.


Fig­ure 1: Phillip Pri­oleau, 1982, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print, 15.3 in. x 15.3 in.
Fig­ure 2: “The Sculp­tur­al Body,” Focus/Perfection, Mon­tre­al Muse­um of Fine Arts, https://​www​.mbam​.qc​.ca/​e​n​/​e​x​h​i​b​i​t​i​o​n​s​/​p​a​s​t​/​f​o​c​u​s​-​p​e​r​f​e​c​t​i​on/.
Fig­ure 3: Instal­la­tion shot of Focus:Perfection (cour­tesy of the writer).
Fig­ure 4: Ajit­to, 1981, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 18 in. x 14 in. (cour­tesy of the Lind­say Nixon).
Fig­ure 5: Ajit­to, 1981, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 18 in. x 14 in.
Fig­ure 6: Ajit­to, 1981, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 18 in x 14 in.
Fig­ure 7: Der­rick Cross, 1983, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 29.5 in. x 24.4 in.
Fig­ure 8: Der­rick Cross, 1983, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 29.5 in. x 24.4 in.
Fig­ure 9: Der­rick Cross, 1983, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 29.5 in. x 24.4 in.
Fig­ure 10: Den­nis Speight, New York City, 1980, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 7.5 in. x 7.3 in.
Fig­ure 11: Thomas Ball, Eman­ci­pa­tion Group, 1875, bronze, Lin­coln Park, Wash­ing­ton, D.C.
Fig­ure 12: Bob Love, 1979, 1979, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 612 x 587 mm.
Fig­ure 13: Hood­ed Man, 1980, Robert Map­plethor­pe. Pho­to­graph, gelatin sil­ver print on paper, 19.1 x 19.1 cm.
Fig­ure 14: Glenn Ligon, _Notes on the Mar­gin of the Black Book_, 1991–1993. Nine­ty-one off­set prints, 11½ x 11½ in.; sev­en­ty-eight text pages, 5¼ x 7¼ in.

Acknowl­edge­ments: Thank you to Dr. Char­maine Nel­son and Dr. Johanne Sloan for help­ing me through­out var­i­ous moments of writ­ing and edit­ing this paper.

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