Everything points to Robert Mapplethorpe this year. In Los Angeles two retrospectives of his work are running simultaneously at LACMA and the Getty Centre until the end of July. A documentary on his life, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, is doing the rounds of Australian cinemas and casting is well underway for a feature film based on his relationship with Patti Smith, as lovingly hammered out in her autobiographical book, Just Kids. Add to that the release of a sprawling art book, which places together all of Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs taken between 1973, when he first picked up a Polaroid camera, until his death in 1989. This book is called Mapplethorpe Flora.
It’s not the first time a collection of Mapplethorpe’s flowers has been published. In fact, his flowers have appeared on everything from calendars to gift cards to stationery sets and there have been at least two or three other books. The first was a collection of his colour photographs of blooms, released in 1990 with an introduction by Patti Smith. In Just Kids, Smith recalls how she and her former lover spoke about flowers during their final moments spent together at a hospital in New York City. “I asked him what he wanted me to do for him and he said take care of my flowers. He asked me to write an introduction to his flower book,” Smith recalls.
“They are colour flowers and I know you prefer the black and white ones so perhaps you won’t like them,” Mapplethorpe said to Smith, provocatively, the day before he died. “I will like them and I will do it,” she replied.
Faced with death, flowers and perpetuating an artistic legacy were foremost on Mapplethorpe’s mind.
Good to her word, Smith prepared a resonant farewell to him in Flowers: Mapplethorpe (Bullfinch Press, 1990). “He came, in time, to embrace the flower as the embodiment of all contradictions revelling within. Their sleekness, their fullness,” she wrote of Mapplethorpe’s relationship with flowers. “He found them to be worthy conspirators in the courting and development of conflicting emotions. He also found it was easy to hurl beauty as anything else. Often they were symbolic of him; his processes. Modelled in geometric shade. Modified in a famous vase and inevitably turned in the realm of their own simplicity – the blossoming of the mystifying aspects of the pure.”
Mapplethorpe is certainly famous for his flora, equally famous for his photos of Patti Smith, female bodybuilders, socialites, male nudes, semi-nudes and New York City’s underground S&M scene in the 1970s. But regardless of his subject matter, he executed each shot with a constant, heightened state of enquiry and an unavoidably intense eye.
“My attitude when I photograph a flower today isn’t different from when I portray a penis,” Mapplethorpe once told Italian art historian Germano Celant in an interview. “After all, they’re the same thing.” Look at the pictures and you’ll see that when Mapplethorpe took a photograph he didn’t flinch.
Through Mapplethorpe’s lens even flowers demonstrate a provocative edge, one that hasn’t diminished with the years. The sexual purpose of flowers is barely suppressed between the pages of Mapplethorpe Flora – evident even as you pull away the book’s burgundy slipcase and start to flick through its 300-odd still lifes. Birds of paradise heads cast black and white shadows across closed blinds, orchids open out their lateral sepals and roses reveal a murky heart, all of them stars of a peepshow of botanical parts.
“Some people have said the pictures I take are very cold,” Mapplethorpe once said of his own work. “I don’t see it that way. The flowers have a sort of weird black side to them I don’t know where, how, why, but somehow they have a real sexy edge to them, which flowers don’t usually have. They’re not the pureness that one usually sees flowers depicted as… I’m just using daylight but there’s a certain edge. I don’t know if nasty is the right word – if you look at the picture of the orchid, to me it’s a kind of scorpion – it has a sharpness to it. It’s a composition.”
Mapplethorpe used flowers as models early in his career as a photographer, claiming they were more patient than people as he perfected his technique. He first picked up a Polaroid camera when he was living at the Chelsea Hotel in 1970. Smith recalls how the camera looked in Mapplethorpe’s hands back then: “The physical act, a jerk of the wrist. The snapping sound when pulling the shot and the anticipation, sixty seconds to see what he got. The immediacy of the process suited his temperament.”
The Polaroids in Mapplethorpe Flora show twin carnations, vases of roses silhouetted against floral wallpaper, and narcissus contrasted against a white tablecloth. But they are teenage photos in the development of his photographic style.
Mapplethorpe really came into his own later, using a square-format Hasselblad camera. Dimitri Levas was his assistant then, and as a member of the board of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, has contributed to the artist’s legacy ever since. Levas recalls in the introduction to Mapplethorpe Flora how the artist took photographs in the afternoons, when the New York light angled low through the horizontal blinds in the window of his loft:
“I would get up early on Saturday mornings and go to the flower market on Twenty-eighth Street, which opened at the crack of dawn. I would pick out the flowers that had the most architectonic shapes and those with the most perfect form. I would let myself in to Robert’s loft on Twenty-third Street, put them in water, and then go to the flea market on Twenty-sixth Street to hunt for treasures. I would go back to Robert’s to have my lunch, while he had his breakfast, and show him my flea-market finds, which he would often buy off me. At around three or four in the afternoon he would photograph what I had brought that morning.”
You couldn’t accuse Mapplethorpe of being sentimental in his approach to flowers though. “No one could ever have called Robert a connoisseur of flowers,” says Levas. “If, say, at the opening of an exhibition he was given a flower arrangement, he would photograph it and discard it almost immediately. The same was true with flowers acquired strictly for the purpose of making photographs. They did not linger in the studio.” His attitude shares echoes with the more overtly tongue-in-cheek declaration of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “I hate flowers,” she famously said. “I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”
At the same time as making floral porno, Mapplethorpe was taking portraits of socialites and documenting the S&M scene he actively participated in. He was sculpting the world around him through his camera and demanding that others look, too. “I went into photography because it seemed like a perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence,” Mapplethorpe told journalist Sarah Kent in 1983. “I’m trying to record the moment I’m living in and where I’m living, which happens to be in New York. I am trying to pick up on the madness and give it some order.”
Mapplethorpe’s images liberated his subjects – he gave them formality and focus – whether it was a penis or a pitcher plant he was fixated on. The art and the story has lost none of its resonance even 27 years after his death. There’s still something inherently risky about a collection of Mapplethorpe images; something that tells you to check that no-one is looking before you look at the photo or open up one of his books. To that extent, Mapplethorpe Flora should come with a warning to readers, something along the lines of: packed with pictures of botanical prowess.
Mapplethorpe Flora is published by Phaidon Press.