Not on display

Robert Mapplethorpe 1946–1989
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Support: 341 × 342 mm
frame: 612 × 587 × 38 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


This black and white photograph is a portrait of Nick Bienes, who Robert Mapplethorpe met in 1977. Bienes sits in three-quarter profile with his head turned to face the camera. He is topless but holds his studded leather jacket, which is slung over his left shoulder, with clasped hands. The top of his leather trousers and a metallic belt can be seen at the bottom edge of the image. Bienes wears a strong yet sullen expression and boasts a dark, trimmed beard and two visible tattoos: a flaming skull on his forehead and a profile head and neck of a man wearing a leather cap on his left bicep. He casts a shadow on the white wall behind him that emphasises his square jaw. 

This portrait was taken in the same year that Mapplethorpe met Bienes at an S&M nightclub in New York called Mineshaft. At this time Mapplethorpe was particularly interested in taking photographs of sadomasochistic sexual practices and the individuals who practised them. However, his images of this period were considered relatively tame in S&M circles, and Bienes referred to them as being an ‘artsified version of S&M. They’re not like photographs snapped during an actual scene’ (Bienes cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.191). Mapplethorpe took many portraits of Bienes.

The tattoo on Bienes’s bicep closely resembles an illustration by Tom of Finland, a Finnish artist whose real name was Touko Laaksonen. Tom of Finland had a huge influence on gay visual culture in the second half of the twentieth century with his homoerotic and pornographic illustrations, many of which featured leather clad men. It is not certain whether Bienes copied a specific illustration for his tattoo, but considering the widespread circulation of Tom of Finland’s work at the time it is highly likely that Bienes was at least inspired by these images. 

Mapplethorpe was gay and actively engaged in the S&M scene himself during the mid to late 1970s. He frequented many gay bars and clubs in the Meatpacking district of New York City including the Mineshaft, which was considered the ‘definitive S&M club’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.189). Art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has described the ‘leather look, the peaked cap, the flaunted biceps’ which Bienes displays in this portrait as strategies of ‘attractiveness and self-definition’ within the gay community as a means of distancing themselves from the connotations of effeminacy often associated with gay men (Danto 1996, p.97). Mapplethorpe took portraits of many other members of the S&M New York scene including Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (see Tate AR00196). 

This portrait of Bienes appeared in Certain People, a photobook published in 1985 with an essay by the cultural critic Susan Sontag. For this book Mapplethorpe included portraits of individuals from the two social spectrums of New York with which he was engaged, that of ‘New York squalor’ and ‘New York glamour’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.297). As such it featured portraits of the wealthy who belonged to the art world or high society, such as Doris Saatchi and Francesca Thyssen (Tate AR00156), as well as celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger (Tate AR00213), alongside portraits of strippers and porn dealers. 

Further reading 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Certain People, Santa Fe 1985. 
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe. A BiographyLondon 1995. 
Arthur Coleman Danto, Playing With the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, Berkeley and London 1996. 

Susan Mc Ateer 
University of Edinburgh 
June 2013 

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS

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Online caption

Nick looks every inch the hard, leather-clad macho guy of the New York gay S&M scene – studs on his jacket, belt and wristband, tattoos on his arm and forehead (a flaming skull) and a well-trimmed beard. Yet his hands are clasped together as if in prayer.

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