Robert Mapplethorpe’s Controversial ‘Man in Polyester Suit’ Photo Sells for $478,000

The photo once was at the center of a Congressional firestorm.

Once the subject of a political firestorm, Robert Mapplethorpe‘s Man in Polyester Suit, a 1980 photo of the artist’s lover Milton Moore wearing a three piece suit with his penis exposed, sold last night at Sotheby’s New York for an impressive $478,000. (The presale estimate was $250,000–350,000.)

The image was part of Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” series, which North Carolina senator Jesse Helms attacked in 1989 for its graphic depictions of same-sex relationships and bondage. The Southern politician was offended that the racy photograph had originally received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Robert Mapplethorpe, <em>Man in Polyester Suit</em> (1980). Photo: Sotheby's New York.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in Polyester Suit (1980).
Photo: Sotheby’s New York.

“The American people…are disgusted with the idea of giving the taxpayers’ money to artists who promote homosexuality insidiously and deliberately,” Helms said before Congress. (Helms’s remarks on Andres Serrano made artnet News’s list of the 10 craziest anti-art art comments made by public figures).

“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,” Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center director Dennis Barrie told the New York Times. He was acquitted on obscenity charges in 1990 for displaying the “X Portfolio” at the institution the year prior.

Man in Polyester Suit still has the power “make people very uncomfortable, even 25 years later,” Barrie added.

Robert Mapplethorpe, <em>Ken Moody and Robert Sherman</em> (1984).

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Moody and Robert Sherman (1984).

The Sotheby’s sale marked the first time in 23 years that one the 15 images from the original edition of “X Portfolio” has turned up at auction. In 1992, Man in Polyester Suit brought in $9,000 on a $3,000–5,000 estimate.

“I think of it as his most conceptual piece,” said Joshua Holdeman, Sotheby’s head of 20th Century Design, Photographs and Prints to the Times. “You either have to write an 800-page dissertation about it, or you have to look at it as a kind of perfect joke and laugh.”

The picture will be included in an upcoming Mapplethorpe retrospective being held in Los Angeles at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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