Robert Mapplethorpe’s Most Controversial Photograph Hits the Auction Block After 23 Years

The powerful image still makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1980). Photo: via Wikimedia Commons.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1980). Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1980) Photo: Wikipedia

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1980)
Photo: Wikipedia

Man in Polyester Suit, a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe that was at the heart of an obscenity charges lawsuit that shook the art world in 1990, is about to hit the auction block for the first time in 23 years.

The storied image, which, according to the New York Times, Senator Jesse Helms described as “filthy art,” shows the torso and upper legs of a black man in a suit, the front zipper undone and the man’s penis fully exposed.

When Dennis Barrie, then director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, decided to exhibit the Mapplethorpe series that included Man in Polyester Suit in 1990, both he and the institution faced obscenity charges in what was believed to be the first criminal trial of an art museum due to the contents of an exhibition.

They were acquitted by a jury formed by four men and four women after a two-hour deliberation, with Barrie avoiding a prison sentence.

Dennis Barrie hugs his attorney H. Louis Sirkin after hearing the verdict in 1990.<br>Photo: via Box Turtle Bulletin

Dennis Barrie hugs his attorney H. Louis Sirkin after hearing the verdict in 1990.
Photo: via Box Turtle Bulletin

“This was a major battle for art and for creativity, for the continuance of creativity in this country,” Barrie declared outside the courtroom. “Mapplethorpe was an important artist. It was a beautiful show. It should never have been in court.”

“I think it’s still one of the images that would draw attention and make people very uncomfortable, even 25 years later,” Barrie told the NYT. “It’s this complex message about race and black men and black power and black sexuality that really got to Helms and some of the other opponents.”

Next Wednesday, a print of Man in Polyester Suit will be auctioned in New York as part of Sotheby’s Photographs sale, with a presale estimate of $250,000-350,000. The seller is an Amsterdam-based collector who has owned the print for over 20 years and wishes to remain anonymous. The NYT reports that the last time the print sold at auction back in 1992, shortly after the controversy, its presale estimate was of $3,000-5,000, with a hammer price of $9,900.

“I think everybody who owns this particular work knows how important it is, and none of them want to let go of it—it’s not been a work that anyone has bought to hold for just a few years. I think of it as [Mapplethorpe’s] most conceptual piece,” Joshua Holdeman, Sotheby’s worldwide head of 20th-century design, photographs, and prints, told the NYT.  “I think the issues that are at play with this image are still very much happening today. It’s not like race is off the table.”

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Photo: Flickr.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Photo: Flickr.

On March 2016, the J. Paul Getty Museum and LACMA will stage a joint landmark retrospective on the work of Mapplethorpe, where Man in Polyester Suit will also be exhibited. Besides the print shared by these two Los Angeles-based institutions, the Guggenheim and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam are the only two other museums that have prints of Man in Polyester Suit in their permanent collections.


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