Body of Art

“Phallic Symbols Between Their Legs”: Photography Critic Philip Gefter on the Shocking Power of the Male Nude

Body of Art
“Phallic Symbols Between Their Legs”: Photography Critic Philip Gefter on the Shocking Power of the Male Nude
Robert Mapplethorpe's Self Portrait, 1975

Long gone are the times when the term "nude," in art, was synonymous with the female body—nowadays, any contemporary art history course worth its salt will include at least a few photographs of the unclothed male physique. This transition was achieved in large part by the epochal work of artists like Robert Mapplethorpeand his contemporaries, whose pioneering photographs in the latter half of the 20th century claimed a locus in the art historical discourse for erotically potent male nudes as vehicles for politics and social change. Championed by his affluent friend, lover, and benefactor Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe used unabashed portraits of genitalia, urophagia, and sadomasochistic sex acts (as well as more recognizably classical descriptions of the male nude, still controversial in the context of the 1970s) to precipitate vital discussions around issues fundamental to art in the public sphere. His battles with censorship during America's so-called Culture Wars helped pave the way for the liberated, sex-positive attitude that characterizes much of today’s photography.

Philip Gefter Portrait

As part of our discussion series around Phaidon’s new book Body of Art, Artspace’s Dylan Kerr spoke to the photography critic Philip Gefter (left)—author of Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe—for more insight into the groundbreaking nature of this work. Here, Gefter shines light on the unlikely connections between the gay community of 1970s New York and the rise of photography as a bona-fide fine art, as well as the historical and ongoing controversies following the depiction of nude male bodies to this day. 

Click here to learn more about Phaidon's Body of Artand buy thebook.

You’re best known for your work on Robert Mapplethorpe and his longtime companion Sam Wagstaff. What drew you to these figures?

I was very interested in Sam Wagstaff for a number of reasons. He was one of the earliest and most significant photography collectors—in fact, he was instrumental in establishing the market for photography in the 1970s, and in doing so helped to elevate the stature of photography to that of a fine art.

I also knew that Sam was the lover, mentor, and patron of Robert Mapplethorpe. Most people who are remotely knowledgeable about how Robert came to be basically assume that Sam Wagstaff made Robert Mapplethorpe. That’s only partially true, but that’s how I became interested in Robert.

I lived in New York in the ‘70s and knew him a little bit—I watched his work emerge, and it was very compelling to me. I’m fond of pointing out that rise of the gay rights movement in America in the early 1970s occurred simultaneously with the growing stature of photography in the art world. While that may be a coincidence of history at the beginning of that decade, by the end of the decade that basic sensibility would be an indelible ingredient in photography’s coming of age.

Robert Mapplethorpe Frank DiazRobert Mapplethorpe's Frank Diaz, 1980

Can you expand on that? How was the gay community of the 1970s tied to a growing interest in the art of photography?

There were some people like John Szarkowski—the curator of photography at MoMA from 1962 to 1991—who were great, eloquent champions of photography as a fine art, but Sam Wagstaff, with his art historical background, his curatorial experience with painting and sculpture, and his class position in New York society, brought a different influence to photography when he turned to it in 1973.

That said, there were a number of young gay photographers working in the ‘70s: Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and Duane Michaels, although he was slightly older and didn’t explicitly focus on homosexuality. I would also include George Dureau, a photographer from New Orleans, in this group. George and Robert were working simultaneously, and you can see the influence of each one in the other’s work. Robert went down to New Orleans in the mid to late ‘70s to meet George, where they exchanged photographs and became friends. Basically, these two brought the homoerotic image and the male nude to the museum and gallery wall in the ‘70s.

I want to qualify that by saying that the male nude did exist throughout the history of photography. It existed in Thomas Eakins’s work, in F. Holland Day’s, in George Platt Lynes’s, but there was such a taboo about showing the male nude and male genitalia that it was not until Robert Mapplethorpe had his show at The Kitchen in 1977 that a photograph of a male nude was shown in an official public gallery space. It was a dual show in concert with the show at Holly Solomon Gallery, where he was showing his portraits—he showed the male nude and S&M imagery at the Kitchen. 

Hujar Sucking ToePeter Hujar's Daniel School Sucking Toe (Close-Up), 1981, as reproduced in Body of Art

A year or two later, Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery did a show called “The Male Nude.” There were about 175 photographs of the male nude by a variety of photographers—homosexual and heterosexual, male and female. It was a representation of the male nude throughout the history of photography. The show was trashed, mostly by heterosexual art critics. Here’s one quote from Gene Thornton in the New York Times: “There is especially something to be said about old fashioned prudery when the unclothed human body is a man’s body. There is something disconcerting at the sight of a man’s naked body being presented primarily as a sexual object.”

As I point out in my biography of Sam, the male nude was not necessarily presented as a sexual object—that was all in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the eye of Gene Thornton. Here’s another one from Ben Lifson, who wrote in The Village Voice: “The nude is a matter of convention. In photography it’s difficult, because everyday experience doesn’t readily proffer naked people, to say nothing of men with phallic symbols between their legs. A nude in a photograph is presumed to be naked in order to be photographed. The male nude is harder still. A man’s body doesn’t lend itself to abstraction like a women’s.” This was in 1978.

Wow. What does that even mean?

“Men with phallic symbols between their legs.” You mean a penis between their legs? [Laughs.]

It’s funny to hear now, but their reaction is interesting. They were shocked in 1978. That’s a stunning point about the male nude in the art context. Keep in mind, though, that it wasn’t until 1965 that you could legally send pictures of the naked body through the U.S. Mail. It was illegal before then, as a result of the Comstock Laws.

It was in this climate that Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, George Dureau, and all these photographers emerged. It was a period that was still pretty hostile for the male nude image, never mind the homoerotic image. It was also a time when these artists were foregrounding the penis. Peter Hujar did this famous picture called Seated Male Nude: Bruce de Sainte Croix, where Bruce is calmly sitting in his chair holding his erection and staring at it. Bruce happens to be quite well endowed, so it’s almost as if he’s contemplating his endowment as much as the viewer is [laughs]. It’s as if he’s considering it in a very calm, quiet, beautiful way, but it was a shocking picture when it was made.

Seated Male Nude Peter HujarPeter Hujar's Seated Male Nude: Bruce de Sainte Croix, 1976. Image via the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

How do you think these photographers influence our perception of the male nude today?

I think Mapplethorpe in particular influenced advertising. Bruce Webber started disrobing the male body in ads in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Think about Calvin Klein—you started to see the unclothed male body in advertisements, in big billboards in Times Square. 

I think the male nude today is much less problematic to our culture than it was 40 years ago. I think that Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and all these guys were pioneers, although I want to reiterate that they were not the first. What they did was bring these images to the gallery at a time when photography was also coming into its own as a fine art. Look at the culture today—it’s not a particularly big deal. I think that’s because of their work.

What was it about either Mapplethorpe’s pictures or those of his contemporaries that was able to make this jump from pornography to art history?

Robert was very intentional in what he made. He wanted to transform the pornographic image into something that was truly classical and universal. That was his aesthetic—he aestheticized the male nude. This meant that his prints were beautiful, his compositions were elegant and formal, and he presented them in legitimate galleries. All of those things contributed to making the images palatable to the public.  

I remember going to a show of his at Robert Miller Gallery, which was at the time was at 5th Avenue and 57th Street. It’s a very, very proper gallery. The first or second image I saw showed one man standing over another, urinating in his mouth. I couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of this picture in that gallery. I think that it was about intentionally trying to make art out of something that was relevant to Robert’s experience. Here was something that he found incredibly sexually exciting, but that the culture had prohibited. It was that tension that he was both working through and working with.

Here’s another quote from the art historian Richard Meyer that I think really hits the nail on the head: “Mapplethorpe presents the naked male body as though the target of prohibition and a source of pleasure, as both an example of censorship and a defiance it.” I think that these dualities are at the core of the gay sensibility. Robert was trying to create something beautiful, to make other people understand how beautiful the male body is while also being an object of desire.

One thing that Body of Art illustrates is the sheer amount of creative energy that has been devoted to challenging normative views of the human body, especially in the photography of the 20th century. If you had to theorize a bit, how do you think the supposedly objective power of photography has changed the way we think about and represent the human body?

My theory is that the invention of photography allowed people to see our world reflected back to them through with such optical precision and in such facsimile. When you see male genitalia presented in all of its actuality, people get a little freaked out about it [laughs]. I think photography got us used to what the human body actually looks like and made us more comfortable with it by familiarity, but I still don’t think we’re all the way there.

I recently spoke at a trustee’s lunch for a very sophisticated art organization. I was talking about this very thing—Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff’s influence—and I was asked to remove several photographs that directly showed male genitalia from my presentation [laughs]. I thought, “Are you kidding? It’s 2015, and these are sophisticated people.” They let me keep them—it was only a discussion, they weren’t demanding that they be taken out—but they did bring it up. We all concluded that it was okay to show these trustees, who live in New York City and look at art all the time, these kinds of images.

I don’t think that the battle is won, in terms of people being truly adult and accepting the reality of the male body. I think it is still makes people uncomfortable, but I also think the conversation around sexuality in all of its permutations is evolving. 

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