A portrait is a kind of public performance, a one-person show calculated to seduce, astonish, confound, or repel its audience. The artist making that portrait must sustain, subvert, or otherwise manipulate and wrest control of the sitter’s act to satisfy his or her own ends. But a self-portrait, even one destined for eventual display, is a closed-circuit event, a private affair that unites artist and subject in a moment of unobserved and, ideally, unguarded revelation—a flash of the soul. But when photographers are alone with their cameras, they’re likely to expose a lot more than inner beauty. Though solitary self-regard isn’t necessarily masturbatory, the process of self-portraiture often has a distinctly sexual undertow, a hot zone that contemporary artists have made more and more explicit.
At a moment when Natacha Merritt (in her book Digital Diaries) and Ron Amato (in his current show at Richard Anderson) are leaving nothing to our imagination with pictures of themselves having a Kama Sutra’s worth of sex, the sexual self-portraits of Pierre Molinier and Robert Mapplethorpe might seem a bit old-fashioned. But the work these sexual outlaws made nearly 40 and 30 years ago can’t be overshadowed by 21st-century raunch. Though period pieces now, Molinier’s and Mapplethorpe’s photographs remain as outrageous, as unsettling, and as touchingly human as ever.
Lucas Samaras’s early-’70s nude Polaroids—antic, ballsy, relentlessly inventive—set a brilliant, hard-to-beat precedent for images of the self in transformation. Molinier’s work from roughly the same period looks musty by comparison, as if preserved in some time capsule of midcentury French bourgeois taste. His studio props—an antique armchair, gilt mirrors, a velvet-covered daybed, a toile de Jouy screen that matches his wallpaper—are oddly prim backdrops to the sexual tableaux Molinier stages on and before them. The Bordeaux-based artist, a painter who’d been taken up by the French surrealists in the ’50s, turned to photography when he was 64 as a means of realizing and recording his fantasies, most of which revolved around an all-consuming fetish for the perfectly turned, black-stockinged leg. Nearly all of his paintings, and many of his photocollages, featured dark-haired, disembodied women who radiate legs like spiders or multiply with alien regularity into monstrous mandalas of wide-eyed faces, bare asses, splayed thighs, and spike heels.
In his self-portraits, Molinier became this ideal woman, clad in dark stockings, a garter belt, a bustier, and fetish heels, often with a black half mask or net veil obscuring his face, sometimes with a neatly shaped black beehive wig. But in many of the photos this feminine disguise coexists with an aggressively masculine presence: between those lovely legs juts a big, hard cock—in some cases Molinier’s own, but usually one of the many handmade silk dildos he employed in his work. Molinier also attached a dildo to the back of one of his stiletto heels—very William Burroughs meets Betty Page—and photographed himself, one leg curled expertly beneath him, impaled on this unlikely member. Even when softened by the veil and careful retouching, Molinier’s expression in these pictures is one of fierce contentment, an almost feline avidity that sometimes breaks into the horrifying rictus of a fun-house clown.
Perhaps because the bulk of these photos were private performances, they have an air of breathtaking, almost animalistic freedom. Molinier, bent forward over a high stool in stockings and heels, presents his spread ass above the fat sack of his balls like a freshly unwrapped gift. In one pair of heavily doctored photos, he stands full-length in his usual getup, holding apart a pair of dark curtains as if stepping out onstage. His modified penis, pointing straight up, is outlined by the luminous back lighting; a pair of perfect breasts—miracles of retouching—thrust triumphantly into the soft shadows before him. In one of the most surprising pictures in the 138-item Shafrazi show, Molinier, posing jauntily on his daybed, appears as a lithe, handsome, utterly undisguised male nude. Surrounded as it is by Molinier’s satiric perversions of ladylike poise and a general air of hermaphroditic omnisexuality, this image finds the artist stripped of artifice but ready, clearly, for anything.
In an early manifesto on “how to create a work of art,” Molinier concluded with the advice to “be irrepressibly, bitterly individualistic,” and there’s no question that he was all that and more. Though he made a brief alliance with the Viennese Actionists, mainly through a favorite female model who had also worked with Herman Nitsch, he had little in common with that group’s blood-and-guts body-art performance work. Since very little of Molinier’s photo work was seen during his lifetime, it was only after his 1976 suicide (arranged meticulously in his own bed so the gunshot left only a trickle of blood on the pillow) that the pictures began to seep into the art world. But even after all the pointedly “transgressive” work dealing with gender, identity, and body issues in the past two decades, it’s hard to think of anyone who can match Molinier for sheer obsessiveness and sexual verve.
Robert Mapplethorpe, especially in his early hardcore period, comes close. The Polaroid self-portraits he made between 1972 and 1974, 56 of which are up now at Cheim & Read, were his first wholly photographic work, following collages and constructions that incorporated images from male physique magazines and gay porn. Like Molinier’s photographs, they involve elements of performance, fetish, and interior decor, and they have a similar sense of private experimentation. On one level, they look like anyone’s first time alone with a Polaroid. Mapplethorpe takes off his clothes and plays with himself, holding the camera at arm’s length to photograph his pained, pretty face or using a time release for more calculated poses. His theatrics run, not surprisingly, to light s/m—tying his cock in leather laces or banding it with a series of metal rings; wearing a black head mask, studded leather collar, tit clamps, and other custom gear. Absent the stark, stylized drama of his later s/m photographs, these pictures look halfhearted and a bit sad; the artist rarely seems caught up in a genuine moment of sexual heat.
But Mapplethorpe was trying out more than his sex toys in these pictures. His previous assemblage work displayed a real sophistication in its use of readymade materials (everything from men’s underwear to a crucifix) and appropriated images. With the Polaroids, he began developing his own photographic aesthetic—one that owes something to ’70s minimalism and conceptual art, but is more closely aligned to the classic modernist photo work of Weston, Outerbridge, Cunningham, and Man Ray. (Though Richard D. Marshall, in an essay for Cheim & Read’s announcement brochure, makes a provocative connection between Mapplethorpe and Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, and Matthew Barney, these artists’ self-portraits were only incidental to their performance documentation, whereas Mapplethorpe’s were the primary focus of his work.)
The Cheim & Read show has its share of sexy, throwaway snapshots of Mapplethorpe sprawled naked in bed, but the most striking and successful images here are of isolated body parts: a clenched fist resting on a stone ledge, bare feet extended toward a wood-slat wall, an arm holding a length of white bedsheet across a bare, striped mattress, and that same skinny arm, cuffed in leather, grasping the bulb of a shutter-release cable in front of a white-painted brick wall. The butch, bare-bones chic of the decor is worth noting, particularly in contrast to Molinier’s femmy airlessness, but Mapplethorpe is onto much more than cool style here. He’s learning how to pare his image down to essentials, replacing lazy narcissism with iconic zap. He’s training, frame by frame, one of photography’s most savage, most elegant eyes. And you are there.