Playing with the Edge

Arthur C. Danto shares an extract of his essay on the peerless Robert Mapplethorpe in a new book from Phaidon

Robert Mapplethorpe: James Ford, 1979. Picture credit: (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc.  

There is a tension at the heart of Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, verging on paradox, between its most distinctive content and its mode of presentation. The content of the work is often sufficiently erotic to be considered pornographic, even by the artist, while the aesthetic of its presentation is chastely classic—it is Dionysiac and Apollonian at once. The content cannot have been a serious possibility for a major artist at any previous moment in history. It is peculiar to America in the 1970s, a decade Mapplethorpe exemplifies in terms of his values, his sensibilities, and his attitudes. But content apart, the photographs seem scarcely to belong to his own time at all. They are controlled, composed exercises in a classical mode. They fit, aesthetically, with the photographs of the nineteenth century, which Mapplethorpe admired and collected, far more than they do with the work of his contemporaries. Dionysus was the god of frenzy, Apollo the god of proportion and of form. According to Nietzsche, the two opposed deities together generated tragedy, and perhaps the dissonance between content and form in Mapplethorpe’s work conveys the dark excitement of tragedy as well.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Thomas, 1987. Picture credit: (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc.

As a person, Mapplethorpe lived along both dimensions of his art. He frequented the wilder precincts of sexual expression that the general lifting of prohibitions opened up for exploration in the late 1960s, but he aspired to a code of conduct hardly typical of the times, somewhere between dandyism and gentlemanliness. The embodiment in Mapplethorpe’s work of these polarities—uninhibited and austere, dirty and pure, wild and disciplined—perhaps explains the undeniable power of his greatest images. It also explains why the work was and remains the focus of hostile criticism. However liberated the sexual mores of the age, they were hardly loose enough to accommodate as acceptable the sadomasochistic practices he celebrated. But neither did the formal beauty to which his art aspired recommend him to the artistic establishment. However modern its content, its severe classicism seemed to consign it to another age.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Calla Lily, 1989. Picture credit: (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc.

It is interesting to contrast Mapplethorpe’s art with that of another artist of the period, one who found favour, even great favour, with the arbiters of photographic taste, namely Garry Winogrand. Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Janet Kardon, Mapplethorpe observed that his pictures were “the opposite of Garry Winogrand’s.” This is nowhere more apparent than in the albums each produced of photographs of women. Women Are Beautiful was published by Winogrand in 1975. Some Women, by Mapplethorpe, was published posthumously in 1989, but was put together in consultation with his friend and colleague Dimitri Levas before his death. The difference between the visions of these two artists, made palpable in the two collections, lays bare a number of the basic variables of photography as an art.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Larry, 1979. Picture credit: (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc.

Robert Mapplethorpe is edited and designed by Mark Holborn and Dimitri Levas, with a foreword by Patti Smith, an introduction by Andrew Sullivan, and an essay by Arthur C. Danto, published by Phaidon on 3 April, £125 (


Fifty years on, photographer Lloyd Ziff reflects on his heady art school days with Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith in a new, limited-edition book

“Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire.”

– Patti Smith 

The year is 1969 and two of America’s most important artists kneel naked in prayer, blindfolded. Next, they gaze at the camera with a brazen intensity, then huddle together with uninhibited intimacy. They are very young, very beautiful and happen to be Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, long before they became titans in photography and music. Published for the first time half a century after they were taken, DESIRE is a limited-edition book from photographer Lloyd Ziff, capturing not only Patti and Robert’s first photo shoot together, but a New York undergoing seismic cultural change in the late 60s. The direct black and white images distil the purity of youth as well as artists and city on the precipice of transformation with minimal fuss – while at the same time offering a deeply personal narrative with original contact sheets and notes. “Far from being odd, they are fantastic in the accidental,” states Ziff, “each has a sense of certainty and forth-rightness.” We spoke to the veteran photographer about hanging out with the duo in Max’s Kansas City, how to achieve photographic spontaneity and why desire manifests itself in all their work.

What first drew you to Robert at art college, what were your first impressions of Patti?

Robert & I met when both were art students at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1967. We were friends, but not particularly close, but I think there was an unacknowledged, perhaps even to ourselves, feeling that we were both possibly gay. When Robert started living with Patti in 1967 or 68, I was struck by her intensity and originality. They made an unusually strong couple.

How did ‘desire’ manifest itself in Robert & Patti’s work, and through your work with these photographs?

They both loved the concept of being artists. I doubt they ever considered being anything else. They were always creating…drawings, paintings, sculptures, collages, & in Patti’s case, writing. I believe you can, I could, feel that in my 1968 portraits. Of course they couldn’t know exactly where the road they were on might lead, but they knew they were on the right road.

The photographs capture a very particular moment in time, what was particular about Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1968 + 1969?

Everything in the late 60s was changing…music, art, movies, our perceptions because of mind expanding drugs. New York City was very open. You could mingle with the new Warhol superstars at Max’s Kansas City for the price of a drink. Of course, Robert & Patti (& I) often didn’t have the price of a drink, but our aspirations were high.

What do you look for in a portrait, how do you achieve such intimacy and spontaneity in your photos?

I prefer to make beautiful photographs. I prefer to establish trust with my subjects. I don’t use lights, & never used a light meter. I photograph what’s there. People trust me to make them look good because I strive to make them feel good.

Why did you previously never feel comfortable doing anything with the pictures?

Robert & Patti were my friends from a particularly innocent time in all of our lives..Patti titled her book,”Just Kids.” I remained friends with Robert, until he died. Eventually I was in a position to commission photography from him as the Art / Design Director of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, & Condé Nast Traveler. We enjoyed working together. Although he and Patti became art world icons, I still felt my photographs of them were personal to us. Then in 2009, Patti phoned me and asked to use two of the 1968 Brooklyn portraits in her book. Of course I said “yes”, I was thrilled they would finally be seen. She wrote that they are the first portraits made of them together. I was surprised to find she also wrote about our nude 1969 photo session at my Charles Street basement apartment. Now I feel the pictures, 50 + years old, can be shown for what they are, portraits of two of Americas most important artists when they were very young, very beautiful, and very ambitious.

Do you have a favourite image, or one that you keep coming back to?

Actually, I don’t. In 1968 I was just beginning to consider myself a photographer. The 1968 Hall Street portraits are attempts to record complicated feelings I had about Robert and Patti. They have gained that particular patina that all photographs seem to acquire with time. What I love about them is how they illustrate that mystery for me. The 1969 nude session is really about friendship, and I thank Patti and Robert for their trust.

‘DESIRE’ by Lloyd Ziff is a limited edition publication of 600 books, available exclusively at