Robert Mapplethorpe’s Controversial photograph ‘Man in Polyester Suit’ is to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s for the first time since it was created in 1980. Snapped before the age of AIDS, at the peak of his abilities as a photographer. His work was beginning to attract international attention and this work was frequently exhibited during his lifetime. Mapplethorpe featured it in his Z portfolio of black male nudes. The provocative nature of the image, the technical perfection of its execution, and the extreme reactions it inspired, make Man in Polyester Suit an encapsulation of Mapplethorpe’s impact upon the art and culture of the 20th century. Thirty-five years after its making, when Mapplethorpe and his work are receiving renewed attention, Man in Polyester Suit has lost none of its resonance.
Until photography became his sole artistic pursuit, Mapplethorpe’s work consisted of assemblages that frequently employed appropriated photographic or photomechanical elements. He began working with photography in 1971, when he was given a Polaroid camera by the artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley. Photography quickly became his medium of choice, and he had his first solo photographic show in 1973: an exhibition of Polaroids at Light Gallery. By the early 1970s, Mapplethorpe had begun to address the themes that he would continue to explore throughout his career: homosexuality, eroticism, transgression, flowers, and portraits. During this period he also refined his craft and approach. While multiple-image compositions and mixed media tended to dominate the work of the early 1970s, by the end of the decade Mapplethorpe had begun to concentrate upon single, stand-alone images. He was sufficiently confident in his craft by that time to produce large-format, beautifully rendered prints of his best images. By 1980, the year in which Man in Polyester Suit was made, we begin to see the emergence of the Mapplethorpe aesthetic.
Man in Polyester Suit is exemplary of Mapplethorpe’s new approach. He had, in 1980, largely moved past the shock effects of his sadomasochistic imagery and embarked upon a more nuanced photographic investigation of eroticism and homosexuality. The motivations behind his best work remained intensely personal. The subject of Man in Polyester Suit is Mapplethorpe’s lover, Milton Moore, with whom he had a tempestuous and ultimately doomed relationship. It is a testament to Mapplethorpe’s talent that out of the messiness of his physical and emotional entanglement with Moore he could create this technically perfect, highly stylized, and cheekily transgressive image. Mapplethorpe’s friend, the writer and editor Ingrid Sischy, referred to Man in Polyester Suit as the photographer’s ‘wryest image of all’ (The New Yorker, 13 November 1989). Critic Arthur C. Danto has suggested that Man in Polyester Suit is Mapplethorpe’s masterpiece.
As an artist and a photographer, Mapplethorpe was, above all, a master of beauty. His attention to detail, his gifts for lighting and composition, and his exacting craftsmanship transformed each object before his camera into an idealized symbol. The present image artfully demonstrates Mapplethorpe’s ability to present an image that is both shocking in content but also technically and aesthetically perfect.
In a body of work generally considered controversial, Man in Polyester Suit was, from the start, one of Mapplethorpe’s most conspicuous images. It was exhibited in no fewer than 20 international museum and gallery venues during his lifetime, including his 1981 exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, and his multi-venue 1983 retrospective originating at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The photograph was famously impounded by customs officials at Heathrow airport upon its arrival in London for that exhibition, along with Mapplethorpe’s portrait of artist Louise Bourgeois holding a phallic sculpture. Man in Polyester Suit was shown in the Whitney Museum’s 1988 retrospective, and was a cornerstone image in his Black Males exhibition shown in Amsterdam, New York, and Rome in the early 1980s, as well as in The Black Book, published in 1986.
Its status as one of Mapplethorpe’s most notorious images was cemented by its inclusion in The Perfect Moment, the most important exhibition of the photographer’s work and one of the most controversial museum shows of the twentieth century. Originating at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1988, and slated for six subsequent museum venues in America, The Perfect Moment became a lightning rod for artistic freedom in the United States when images in the show were deemed obscene by conservative lawmakers. The outcry was led by Senator Jesse Helms, who, on the floor of the U. S. Senate, delivered an impassioned speech against the photographs. The resulting controversy—which played out against the grim backdrop of the AIDS crisis and Mapplethorpe’s own recent death from the disease—encompassed debates about freedom of expression, obscenity, and government funding for the arts.
Fueled by worldwide media coverage, the controversy surrounding The Perfect Moment reached a new fervor when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., abruptly cancelled its plans to show the exhibition. The reaction of the cultural community was swift, and the non-profit artist-run organization Washington Project for the Arts quickly stepped in to take over the exhibition. On the day that the exhibition was to have opened at the Corcoran, laser artist Rockne Krebs projected Mapplethorpe’s images onto the museum’s façade.
Senator Helms continued to call stridently in Congress for tighter controls on grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and pressure mounted in Cincinnati for the Contemporary Arts Center, the exhibition’s subsequent venue, to also cancel the show. When the Center’s director Dennis Barrie refused, the Center was raided by police, and he and his institution were charged with obscenity. In the much-anticipated trial that followed, Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center were ultimately acquitted by the jury, who upheld the Center’s right to exhibit the photographs. The sensational media coverage of The Perfect Moment and the trial that followed placed Mapplethorpe firmly on the international stage as a standard-bearer for artistic integrity. Seen from the distance of twenty-five years, the Cincinnati trial engendered one of the most significant public discussions on the issue of art and its position within American society.
The vitriol directed at The Perfect Moment, at images like Man in Polyester Suit, and at Mapplethorpe himself during this period recalls the outcry that met the debut of Edouard Manet’s Olympia in the Paris Salon of 1865. The painting’s frank depiction of a nude prostitute, who regards the viewer directly, completely unnerved the artistic establishment. Manet’s work had caused controversy before – Le déjeuner sur l’herbe had been refused from the Salon of 1863 – but the reaction toOlympia focused an unprecedented amount of brutally critical attention, and attendant public scorn, on Manet. While Mapplethorpe was branded a pornographer, Manet was derided as a ‘recidivist of the monstrous and immoral.’ Public vilification was the cost that Manet and Mapplethorpe, among others, paid for exhibiting images which challenged accepted ways of portraying the body in art.
In subsequent years, Man in Polyester Suit has remained one of Mapplethorpe’s most enduring images. It has been included in the key exhibitions of his work worldwide and is reproduced in the major monographs on the photographer. Prints of the image are in the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Getty Research Institute/Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The photograph offered here, from a private collector in Amsterdam, has a distinguished and direct provenance. It was acquired from Amsterdam’s Galerie Jurka in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and has remained in the same collection ever since. Rob Jurka was one of the first dealers in Europe to handle and promote Mapplethorpe’s work. He first showed Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 1979, and published an accompanying catalogue. In 1980, Galerie Jurka was the debut venue for Mapplethorpe’s Black Males exhibition; again, Jurka published a catalogue for the show, with an introduction by Edmund White. Galerie Jurka would go on to hold one-man shows of Mapplethorpe’s work in 1981, 1982, and 1988, making Rob Jurka one of Mapplethorpe’s most constant European champions. Mapplethorpe’s file card for Man in Polyester Suit, now in the collection of the Getty Research Institute, shows that six of the 15 editioned prints of this image were offered through Galerie Jurka.
Prints of Man in Polyester Suit are surprisingly rare in the market. An editioned print, such as that offered here, has not come up for auction since 1992, when a print was sold in these rooms. Sotheby’s had previously sold a print in 1991. The print offered here represents the photograph’s first appearance at auction in twenty-three years.
The artwork will be a key lot in Sotheby’s NY Photographs sale on the 7th October estimate: $250,000 – £350,000