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Robert Mapplethorpe

'Man in Polyester Suit' (from Z portfolio), 1980

Lot Closed

November 16, 03:41 PM GMT


10,000 - 15,000 GBP

Lot Details


Robert Mapplethorpe

1946 - 1989

'Man in Polyester Suit' (from Z portfolio), 1980

Selenium toned silver print flush mounted to white rag board. Signed and numbered '17/25' in black pen in the lower margin. From Z portfolio, numbered '9' in blind stamp on mount. Mounted and framed. 

Image/sheet 19 x 19 cm (7 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)

Mount 34.3 x 32.5 cm (13 1/2 x 12 3/4 in.)

Frame 48.3 x 45.4 cm (19 x 17 7/8 in.)

Sandy Nairne, Robert Mapplethorpe: 1970-1983 (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1983), p. 46;

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Black Book (Munich, 1986), no. 55;

Robert Mapplethorpe and Janet Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1988), pl. 69;

Richard Marshall, Robert Mapplethorpe (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998), p.95;

Els-Barents, Robert Mapplethorpe: Ten By Ten (Munich, 1988), no. 55;

Mark Holborn and Dmitri Levas, eds., Mapplethorpe (New York, 1992), pl. 117.

In the late 1980s, a group of conservative lawmakers in the US fought to abolish state funding of any art portraying homosexuality, male nudity and other contentious issues. The Culture Wars, as the sensational controversy came to be known, was in part sparked by a touring exhibition on Robert Mapplethorpe. Titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the show first opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1988 and featured over 150 works by the photographer, including homoerotic imagery. Opposing lawmakers claimed that such projects, despite being subsidized by taxpayers’ money, were threatening many of society’s traditional values. When the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. cancelled its leg of the exhibition, counter-protests by the LGBTQIA+ and art communities incited. While Mapplethorpe had died by the time this debate intensified in 1989, his exhibition became globally emblematic of the struggle for freedom of artistic expression.


One of the works on display at The Perfect Moment that triggered most of the controversy was Man in a Polyester Suit and it is not hard to understand why. The photograph is the ultimate work of shock art. According to curators Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen, the image ‘comes as a blunt visual conformation that calls into question (white) fears about black sexuality by conjuring and reinforcing the racial stereotype of the well-endowed black male.’ Undoubtedly, the oversized phallus forms the focal point of the composition. However, its unexpected appearance outside a freshly pressed suit is what renders the image humorous as much as provocative. This bold juxtaposition is enhanced by Mapplethorpe’s masterful usage of light and framing, emphasizing the sculptural forms of both flesh and suit.


Other prints of this image can be found in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the J. P. Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Moderna Musset in Stockholm.