Robert Mapplethorpe



Not on display

Robert Mapplethorpe 1946–1989
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 341 × 341 mm
frame: 611 × 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 square-format portrait photograph features the English bass player Dennis Smith (nicknamed ‘Smutty’), a member of a Rockabilly band called Levi and the Rockats. Shirtless, he wears black trousers with a thin belt and is seated with his hands resting on his left leg. With his head facing to the left, he glances to his right, looking directly at the camera. He sports a version of the 1950s pompadour-style haircut, with a high quiff. His arms feature a variety of tattoos, including what appear to be a stag’s head on his lower left arm and a depiction of the cartoon character Micky Mouse on his lower right arm.

The photograph was taken in Mapplethorpe’s loft in Bond Street, Soho in 1980, when Smutty was twenty-one. The artist met Smutty through the New York nightclub scene, which they both frequented. The sitter commented on his experience of the photo shoot in an interview: ‘I guess he invited me to his loft, which was in Soho around Mercer Street. I remember going there alone and going into the apartment and noticing that it was kind of bare … flame torches … which looked like a Mexican jail … and a primitive jail type bed … I thought this guy’s cool ... He said that he was a photographer and would I like to see his work. I said yes and started looking through his portfolio’ (quoted in Pavlowski Green 2013). Having seen some of the artist’s more graphic sexual images in the portfolio, Smutty was concerned about what Mapplethorpe would ask of him during the shoot. However, the experience of being photographed was positive: ‘[Mapplethorpe] was so nice and polite, you could not help but love this man. He asked if we could set up a photo shoot and I said yes. We did the shoot and I was thinking what if he asked [sic] me to strip off, shall I? But he never did... It was a great shoot and we became very close friends.’ (Quoted in Pavlowski Green 2013.)

In the resulting photograph Smutty’s androgynous appearance and delicate pose contrast markedly with his tattooed skin and studded wristband; details which may suggest his own darker side as well as that of the rock-and-roll world which he inhabited. Nevertheless, his slightly startled gaze also conveys the vulnerability and uncertainty of youth. Following the photo shoot, Mapplethorpe photographed him on several further occasions, regularly featuring these photographs in his gallery shows. One of these subsequent works, Smutty 1982 (Tate AR00189), shows the bassist in a more confident pose, standing with his body in profile, leaning casually on his left arm against the wall with his right arm resting on his hip. Gone is the vulnerability evident in the earlier image; his head is turned to look directly at the camera in a posture commanding and almost inviting.

Further reading
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography, London 1995.
Julie Pavlowski Green, ‘Smutty Smith: One Kool Kat’, Patterns and Tones, April 2013,, paragraphs 21–4, accessed 22 June 2014.

Matthew Macaulay
The University of Edinburgh
June 2014

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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Online caption

The nickname, tattoos, studded wristband and knowing look suggest that there is a darker side to this androgynous-looking young man. The placement of the arms and the contrapposto of the body and head are features common in Mannerist art, an area of art history that Mapplethorpe had a particular interest in.

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