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Patti Smith facing camera, cutting her hair, with cat in background.

Patti Smith, 1978

Robert Mapplethorpe's photos document a vanishing kind of artistic community

The ways artists connect with each other is changing. Mapplethorpe’s work is a testament to the creative communities of the past.

In the famed summer of 1967, when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar in Monterey and China exploded the H-bomb, Robert Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith at the ornate headquarters of Scribner’s bookstore in midtown Manhattan. Soon they became inseparable and determined to succeed as artists, Mapplethorpe as a photographer and Smith as a Rimbaud-inspired rock’n’roller. They sought to embed themselves in the netherworld of downtown New York, skulking the doors of nightclubs such as Max’s Kansas City, frequented by Andy Warhol’s inner circle of artists, drag queens, socialites and coke fiends. In Smith’s elegiac memoir, Just Kids, she describes the atmosphere as “the social hub of the subterranean universe, as darkly glamorous as one could wish for”.

What emerges most forcefully in Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, currently showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is how his portraits capture an artistic community – a concept that has been redefined in the age of the internet. They reveal Smith at her most androgynous, staring down the camera in the manner of Manet’s Olympia and balancing doves on her hands, an image later used on the cover of her 1979 album Wave.

Also before the lens are a motley crew of actors, artists, lovers and patrons, among them Isabella Rossellini, Deborah Harry, David Hockney, Princess Gloria and the inimitable Cookie Mueller. Each of the black-and-white portraits are theatrically austere, as though plucked from glossy Vogue spreads and rendered floating on luminous backdrops.

When Mapplethorpe and Smith lived in the Chelsea Hotel in 1970, they supported each other by friendly critique, hanging mock-ups and poems around their shared living space as a reminder that together, their art was a work-in-progress. Their relationship was less one of friendly competition and more of loving symbiosis – they shared a common artistic vision; one that was quasi-mystical and boundary pushing. They were at the core of a larger community of artists who longed to have their voices heard by a broader public. They also joked about who would become famous first. The Chelsea invited this kind of ambition, with its mercurial community inhabiting what Smith described as “a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe”.

One route to fame was to achieve an infamy of subject matter, and Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio – a series of graphic photographs documenting sadomasochistic sex acts – was perfect for this. In 1985, the Meese anti-pornography commission had been set up and Republican politicians like Alfonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms railed against the National Endowment for the Arts, calling for its elimination. Helms, who the New York Times coined the “Senate’s most persistent yahoo” when it came to questions of moral decency, brandished a Mapplethorpe image on the Senate floor in 1989, waving it around as though ready to pin the scarlet letter. Along with Republican firebrands, Mapplethorpe’s work drew the ire of a local Cincinnati group called Citizens for Community Values, who tried to block an exhibition of the artist’s work with such vehemence that the director of the gallery showing it was charged with obscenity. The gallery director was acquitted by a jury the year after Mapplethorpe died from Aids-related complications, the ruling essentially confirming widespread approval of Mapplethorpe’s work.

Even in Mapplethorpe’s heyday, being an artist meant residing on the fringe of mainstream society, and to keep up one’s spirit in the face of this, it was important to have like-minded people around. This community also provided a source of support in times of uncertainty.

Under the mayoral arm of Ed Koch, New York City was infamous for its crime in the 1970s and 80s, in which large swathes of it were overrun by drug dealers, sex workers and vagrants. In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing describes the now Disney-like Times Square as previously home to the kind of homosexual subculture featured in Mapplethorpe’s work. The city’s poverty allowed for relatively cheap rents for artists, where in Smith’s words – given their lack of income – she and Mapplethorpe could survive on little more than grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate shakes. These spaces were largely excised during the 1990s and early 2000s under mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose “broken windows” approach to policing involved crackdowns on relatively minor offences such as graffiti, cannabis possession and turnstile jumping. Such a process of gentrification led Smith to declare, in a 2010 interview, that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. The city has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find a new city.”

The bohemian community inhabited by Mapplethorpe and Smith has taken on a mythic quality, not only because of its tragic association with the Aids crisis, but because of the lost sense of old New York, where it was once possible to thrive as an artist among the ruins. Now the city has become a shining epicentre of our pan-capitalist moment, where the skyscrapers reflect the steely glow of Wall Street transactions. The art world, too, has embraced late capitalism with the birth of the global art fair, from Miami to Dubai, a constantly evolving shopping village for rich collectors and their entourage. While New York remains a hub for the art market, young artists themselves have fled to cities without prohibitive living costs, such as Berlin, Detroit and Athens.

The concept of collectivity has changed since Mapplethorpe’s time, too. Pockets of artists still exist in close geographical proximity, but the birth of the internet has meant an incredible expansion of artistic community. The size and diversity of social media allows artists to easily connect and form communities across national boundaries. If you are unable to physically attend an exhibition in east London, you can still access an on-screen installation at your desk in Honolulu, Tel Aviv or Tennessee.

But how this might translate to peer support in difficult moments, such as charges of obscenity, is not so clear. And how does this shift in communication and community-building influence artistic practice? Perhaps these are the kinds of questions that will only be answered when we are looking back at the works of today’s practising artists in 30 years time.

Since his death, Mapplethorpe has undergone art world beatification. Bob Colacello, writing in Vanity Fair last year as a former friend of the artist, says he could imagine Mapplethorpe “chuckling quietly to himself over the absurdity of it all, the incongruity and officiousness”. Mapplethorpe’s work now graces the world’s premier art institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Grand Palais in Paris. He has become so well known as to overshadow other artists of the time, such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz, who both also died of Aids-related causes and explored similar subject matter. His work nevertheless remains a document of a vanishing kind of community – a paean to something wild and yet glamorous, a profoundly beautiful ballad that plays for those of us who don’t quite fit in.