Mapplethorpe 'Man' Revealed at Auction

NEW YORK CITY -- Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial photograph 'Man in Polyester Suit' is to go under the hammer this week at Sotheby's for the first time since it was created in 1980.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network are eager to bid on one of the most important photographs of the 20th century.

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.

Until photography became his sole artistic pursuit, Mapplethorpe’s work consisted of assemblages that frequently employed appropriated photographic or photomechanical elements.

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. By 1980, the year in which Man in Polyester Suit was made, we begin to see the emergence of the Mapplethorpe aesthetic.

Exemplary Photograph

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.

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.

'Perfect Moment'

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.

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.

Distinguished Provenance

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.

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 7 October; estimate: $250,000 - $500,000