Robert Mapplethorpe’s Intimate Gifts to His Lover and First Male Model, David Croland

Robert Mapplethorpe and David Croland, New York City, 1971.

Photograph by Norman Seeff

In 1970, Sandy Daley, a filmmaker who lived at the Chelsea Hotel,
invited her neighbor, a young artist named Robert Mapplethorpe, to
collaborate with her on a movie. The result, “Robert Gets His Nipple
Pierced,” was a thirty-three-minute documentary shot in Daley’s
all-white loft, for which Daley filmed Mapplethorpe undergoing the
painful procedure at the hands of Dr. Herb Krohn, the hotel’s resident
physician. The movie, which features a voice-over by Patti Smith, with
whom Mapplethorpe was living at the time, shows a glassy-eyed
Mapplethorpe, his naked torso strewn with rose petals like blooming
wounds, cradled in the arms of David Croland, who had recently become
Mapplethorpe’s boyfriend. Croland, a professional fashion model, was
also semi-clad: his chest was naked, adorned only with several dangling
necklaces made by Mapplethorpe. His hair fell, like Mapplethorpe’s, in
lavish curls around his face.

In her memoir “Just Kids,” from 2010, Patti Smith wrote that Croland was “a
puppet master, bringing new characters into the play of our lives,
shifting Robert’s path and the history that resulted.” Croland was a
couple of years younger than Mapplethorpe, who was born in 1946, in
Floral Park, Queens. But he had a gloss of sophistication by which
Mapplethorpe was fascinated. Croland had dated Susan Bottomly, the model
and Warhol superstar known as International Velvet, and had appeared in
several movies for Warhol. Having grown up in a wealthy and cultured
home in New Jersey—his father owned a textile company, his mother wore
couture—Croland offered Mapplethorpe an entrée to fashionable society,
and society manners. It was Croland who introduced Mapplethorpe to Sam
Wagstaff, who would become his patron, his dealer, and his lover.
(Wagstaff would die of complications from AIDS, in 1987; Mapplethorpe
died two years later.)

This October, Sotheby’s is offering at auction several objects that
Mapplethorpe made for or gave to Croland. “It was time,” Croland said
the other day, of his decision to sell at least part of his personal
Mapplethorpe collection. Croland served as Mapplethorpe’s first male
subject when he began taking Polaroid photographs. (Patti Smith was the
first woman who modelled for him.) He still has the long limbs and
slender physique that launched his modelling career. The precise measurements of his proportions are
immortalized in the first work that Mapplethorpe made for him, as a
twenty-second-birthday gift: a collage, incorporating Croland’s head
shot, hand-tinted by Mapplethorpe, and his modelling card. (He was
six feet two, with a thirty-five-inch chest, a thirty-inch waist, and
thirty-five-inch hips.) “I was stunned when he gave it to me, because we
had just met,” Croland said the other day, while looking over the
objects in a private lounge at Sotheby’s. Their first encounter had been
at the Chelsea Hotel, when Tinkerbelle, one of Warhol’s entourage,
brought Croland to the room that Mapplethorpe shared with Smith. Croland
recalled, “I fell into the room and practically onto him, which he
didn’t mind, and neither did I.”

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"Untitled (David Against Brick Wall)," Robert Mapplethorpe, 1970. A collage incorporating Croland’s head
shot and modelling card.

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"Le Serpentine/Spartacus," Robert Mapplethorpe, 1971. A photograph of a statue that Mapplethorpe took while on his first trip to Paris.

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A postcard Mapplethorpe sent to Croland during his first trip to Paris, 1971.

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Necklace of macramé-silk cords strung with beads, Robert Mapplethorpe, c. 1971.

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Necklace of macramé-silk cords strung with beads, Robert Mapplethorpe, c. 1971.

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"Untitled (David Against Brick Wall)," Robert Mapplethorpe, 1970. A collage incorporating Croland’s head
shot and modelling card.

Croland had attended a series of art schools in the city—Pratt, Parsons,
the School of Visual Arts—though he never graduated. “I was majoring in
looking out the window at my future,” he said. Having been discovered as
a model as soon as he arrived in New York, Croland moved among the
professionally beautiful and those who pursued them. Among the other
works that Sotheby’s is offering are three necklaces of macramé-silk
cords strung with beads: the kind of thing that Croland and Mapplethorpe
wore in the nipple-piercing movie, multiply layered. For a period,
Mapplethorpe made such jewelry, which he sold for fifty or seventy-five
dollars apiece. “Only privately, to some little-known people, like Yves
Saint Laurent, Loulou de la Falaise, Marisa Berenson, Halston,” Croland
said. The nature of Croland and Mapplethorpe’s intimacy is conveyed in
one of the lots on offer, a small photograph of a statue that
Mapplethorpe took while on his first trip to Paris, in 1971, along with
a postcard to Croland, in which Mapplethorpe remarks, “I’ve been living
a sexually quite life.” This is presumably a misspelling of
“quiet”—although, Croland added, “He and I were the worst students, but
it could have been ‘I’ve been living a quite sexual life,’ too, to be
honest.”

By the end of his life, Mapplethorpe was both celebrated and notorious
for his images, large-format photographs in which he might subject the
stem of a calla lily or the shaft of a penis to the same aesthetic
scrutiny. Some of the objects that have been in Croland’s possession
appear to bear surprisingly little relation to the artist Mapplethorpe
would become: a color-pencil drawing that Mapplethorpe made on graph
paper while an art student at Pratt hardly seems a precursor to the
works that would be excoriated by Senator Jesse Helms, leading to the
cancellation of a planned show at the Corcoran Museum.

Others are more suggestive of the direction that his work would later
take, and the way in which he would combine sexually explicit themes—the
spirit of the leather bar—with a precision of artistry, of balance and
harmony, that often recalls religious iconography. The most unusual
work, the value of which Sotheby’s has estimated at fifty thousand to seventy
thousand dollars, is a hand-tinted Polaroid photograph set in a plastic
Polaroid case. The image is a self-portrait, albeit from an unusual
perspective: Mapplethorpe’s penis grasped in his left hand, shot from
eye level, looking down upon himself while seated. Mapplethorpe’s thighs
form a “V” shape that corresponds to the string from which the work is to
be hung, which is threaded with beads and dice. The careful composition
gives the piece the aura of a private devotional. Of the work, Croland
says, “It’s autoerotic. It’s him holding on to his—I don’t know, pick a
word that you like. Would you prefer ‘dick,’ ‘cock’? Those are the only
two I ever use. And it’s a gift to me, his boyfriend, that is, like,
‘Remember this?’”

"Self-portrait," Robert Mapplethorpe, 1971.

Like “Robert Gets His Nipple Pierced,” the work is both profoundly
louche and peculiarly, movingly innocent. In it Mapplethorpe’s body is
naked, but so are his emotions. From the perspective of the present
moment, what is shocking about the image is not the nudity it entails
but the passion it conveys. Today, piercings and tattoos and other
formerly outré forms of body modification might barely raise an eyebrow
at a suburban country club. But, at the same time, sexuality has been
commodified in ways that the visionary denizens of the Chelsea Hotel in
the early seventies could hardly have imagined: a nipple piercing is a
branding exercise for Kylie Jenner. These early works of Mapplethorpe’s
are a reminder of what, at that fruitfully bohemian moment,
transgression consisted in. Their coming to market now poses the
question of what it has become.

Sourse: newyorker.com