In the dimly lit living room of his Washington Heights apartment, Edward Mapplethorpe hears his brother’s voice and turns around. “There he is,” he says brightly, as if Robert Mapplethorpe had just walked into the room, late for a meeting. In the flickering image on the screen behind us, Robert is mischievously smiling, smoking a joint. The footage was shot in 1985 by the photographer Lynn Davis. In it, we see Edward, Robert, and a few other people hanging out in Robert’s loft. Robert and Edward, who looked so much alike back then, take a seat on a couch and begin to look at the galleys of Robert’s first book, Certain People. When Edward watched the film for the first time a couple of months ago, he ran the gamut of emotions—from tears to anger to laughter—and then fell into an exhausted heap for the remainder of the day. Even now, he is a bit twitchy watching the footage. “He wants me to look at his book,” he says, “but he’s turning the pages.” And then he says something he’ll say many times in the course of our conversations: “I don’t want to focus too much on Robert.”
Edward, whose career began in 1982 as his brother’s studio assistant and who has finally emerged as an extraordinary artist in his own right, has never had much of a say in the matter. He, like many people, was drawn into his brother’s creative universe, a world of subversive sex and hard drugs, obsession and ambition, darkness and beauty. By the time it was over, when Robert died of aids, in 1989, Edward was addicted to heroin and struggling to find his own creative way—a virtually impossible task in the long shadow of his brother’s legacy. After a few shows in the early nineties, Edward withdrew from the art world almost entirely. But he never stopped making art. In the center of Edward’s living room is a custom flat-file cabinet that holds 25 years of his photography—from a series of spooky underwater pictures to his astonishing commissioned portraits of 1-year-olds—in meticulously organized drawers and boxes. This fall, he is having his first gallery show in New York in thirteen years, at the Foley Gallery. The new work—lithographic prints of abstract photograms that are made with horse hairs—is a breakthrough for Edward, much closer to painting or drawing than photography. Indeed, the prints barely look like photographs at all.
As we stand at the cabinet flipping through the series, Mapplethorpe looks back to the scene on the screen from two decades ago, to his 25-year-old self who did not know that terrible things were about to happen. “When I see this,” he says, “I’m like, ‘You’re still innocent here! The shit is going to hit the fan! Can I rewind?’”
Edward barely knew Robert when they were growing up in Floral Park, Queens. He was only 3 years old—the youngest of six children—when his brother started commuting to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, 4 when Robert moved out of the house for good. Robert was transformed by the sixties, growing his hair long, taking LSD, going to art school, and generally rebelling against his rigid Catholic upbringing as if following a script. Their father, an exceedingly practical and conservative man who worked his entire life as an engineer at the Underwriters Laboratories on Long Island, was appalled by his son’s behavior and disappointed in his career choice. Robert almost never came home, and when he did, says Edward, “my father wouldn’t talk to him. He would hold his hand in front of his face and say, ‘I can’t look at you!’ ”
On one of his rare visits, when Robert was 20 and Edward was 7, Robert brought with him a young singer and poet from South Jersey named Patti Smith. “The one thing that I remember very clearly,” says Smith, “was that I looked at the two younger brothers and James was sort of a dark-haired, moody kid who resembled Robert a bit, and Eddie was just a freckle-faced imp. I said to Robert, ‘Do you think James will become an artist?’ And Robert said, ‘Oh, no. Eddie’s the one.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ And he said, ‘I can tell. He’s the one.’ ” A year later, Smith gave Edward a book, Marc Chagall: Art for Children. It is inscribed EDDIE, HOPE YOU’LL BE ONE TOO SOMEDAY. PATTI.
Despite his father’s disapproval, Edward was taken with the iconoclasts who occasionally showed up at family gatherings. Edward shows me a photograph taken at his eighth-grade graduation from Our Lady of the Snows. Edward is walking down the aisle in cap and gown, and there is Robert, standing off to the side—in full black leather. “I was like, Oooh, this is weird,” says Edward. “But I also thought, This is cool.” That was about the time Edward started seeing Robert less as a brother he hardly knew than as a rock star whose acquaintance he had made.
“Something instinctively in me knew that I did not want to be involved in the blue-collar-white-collar world of Queens,” he says. “And Robert was an example to me that there was something outside of that world. He showed me a path.”