There’s a darkly funny and truly unsettling moment about halfway through Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, the terrific new HBO documentary, which premiered on April 4, about Robert Mapplethorpe, the openly gay Queens-born photographer who shocked the world with his graphic gay S&M pictures before he died of AIDS in 1989.
His former lover and confessor Jack Fritscher leans into the camera and says, “I have to say that, because nobody will say it.” He pauses nervously, then continues, “Not to put [Mapplethorpe] down, but…Satan, to him, was not this evil monster. Satan was like a convivial playmate”—a truck or some construction interrupts him—“having a jolly good time seducing the maidens.” Fritscher is alluding to Mapplethorpe’s deep foray into a nocturnal world of multiple sex partners and extreme acts. “To me, it was a bridge too far.”
But the ominous noise from somewhere continues. Then Fritscher calls, agitated, to someone else in the house, “Can we close the doors? I’m getting awfully cold.” The audience around me—at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a massive Mapplethorpe retrospective just opened—laughed uneasily at the idea of Mapplethorpe, in his black leather, dropping in from the dark afterworld on a surviving lover just as he divulges his judgment of Mapplethope as a gleeful devil.
The moment underscores the power of this lavishly sourced documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the duo that has brought us, among several other documentaries, the runaway cult TV hit RuPaul’s Drag Race. As with that show, this doc enjoys knife-sharp editing, with an eye for stray facial expressions or vocal tics that serve as perfect ironic buttons for intense moments. But what is really important about Look at the Pictures—in addition to its being the first tautly told tale of Mapplethorpe’s life and work for those not familiar—is the frankness with which it re-coronates the artist as a prince of darkness, a title he would surely endorse.
Almost 30 years—and much cultural evolution, vis-à-vis queer sexuality—have passed since Mapplethorpe died, looking for several months prior (as in this iconic self-portrait) like a handsome cadaver as he delighted in the macabre spectacle of his work’s value skyrocketing on the eve of his demise. We’ve lost some of the sting of AIDS since then, the need to frame all who’ve died of it as angels, as we did in the days of ickily well-meaning films like Philadelphia. Such a hagiography might work better for Keith Haring, another gay artist who, like Mapplethorpe, ascended in the 1980s and died, a year after Mapplethorpe, also of AIDS. Haring’s work also embraced gay male sexuality—but did it with a childlike joyfulness, in bright, stylized colors. His gay images feel of a piece with a life that was about being a beloved and accessible public artist, a painter in New York City’s democratic and multicultural streets, with strong overtones of liberty and justice for all.