Mapplethorpe, Sexual Outlaw

Matt Smith Plays the Provocative Photographer

BY: Claire Connors

Talk about perfect timing. Just as Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, the two-part retrospective of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe opens at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, the bio-pic of the exciting, S&M-loving artist debuts in theaters as well.

It’s been exactly 30 years since the dazzling Robert Mapplethorpe succumbed to complications from AIDS at the height of his fame and artistry. His life, relationships, and ambitious rise to fame has already been covered in the beautifully written 2010 memoir, Just Kids, by his lover and collaborator, performance artist Patti Smith. Her thoughtful and poetic words paint an almost angelic portrait—albeit a leather-clad, whip-wielding angel—of Robert as a young man discovering his sexuality in the late 60s and early 70s. As he haunted, and then participated in, the queer S&M dungeons on the lower west side of Manhattan, he developed a photographer’s eye with a bent toward theretofore undocumented sexual fetishes involving gay men.

Of course, this fascinating, not to mention beyond sexy artist, would make a fantastic subject for a biographical film. In Mapplethorpe, we meet the young lovers Patti (newcomer Marianne Rendón) and Robert (The Crown’s Prince Philip, Matt Smith), exploring the shadowy areas of New York City, living in the notorious Chelsea Hotel, and searching for their own versions of fame. Robert discovers the camera and begins shooting controversial images, unlike anything that the world had ever seen before. Robert’s frank and shameless interpretation of homoeroticism, displayed in polaroids, photobooth strips, and on beautiful, silvery mat paper, was loved by the antiestablishment and loathed by the religious right. A hot spot the inflammatory Robert was quite comfortable in.

In the middle of all of this, at the height of the AIDs crisis, Robert learned he was HIV-Positive, and was dead within a year, at age 42. In an interview toward the end of his life, he was asked what gave him solace. His reply was, “Beauty, and knowing that my work will outlive me.” Between the spectacular Guggenheim retrospective, which opened on January 25th, and the film, which opens April 22nd, Mapplethorpe’s wish appears to have come true.