I lost touch with Edward a few years after we met. I no longer saw his work in magazines, and I imagined the worst: that he had gotten lost to drugs. The reality was more complicated. Much more difficult than his battle with addiction was his struggle to figure out who he was in the wake of his brother’s death. Who was he if not the kid brother of a famous artist who was not allowed to use his last name? “For a long part of his life, he completely negated his own DNA by using the name Maxey,” says his best friend, Michael Flutie. “That has to have a huge influence on who you are as an artist. You’re shadowed by somebody who is much bigger than you are, and at the same time, you have no connection to who you are as a person. Edward had to go to an extreme place in his life just to understand who he is.”
Edward did a few shows in the early nineties that got a fair amount of attention. “It seemed like the light at the end of the tunnel for me,” he says. “It was like, Wow. After all that hardship and death and all those drugs, obviously it’s my time now.” But he couldn’t seem to escape his brother’s influence, or his shadow, which had only grown since his death, and he didn’t like the work he was doing. His last show at the Danziger Gallery was a series of black-and-white photos of the American flag. Naturally, the first thing they brought to mind was Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous and iconic photograph of … the American flag. “I wasn’t ready,” he says. “I hadn’t matured as an artist or thought about what I wanted. And it didn’t work. It wasn’t genuine.” He couldn’t figure out how to be Edward Mapplethorpe, and so he disappeared.
It was a surprise when, in June of this year, I got an e-mail from Edward saying that he was having a show in New York this fall and that he had a new dealer, Michael Foley, in Chelsea. “As you are aware,” he wrote, “it has been some time since I have wanted to put myself out there … But I think once you see the work you will understand why I’ve waited so long. It is finally the piece to the puzzle … that links my past to the future.”
I went up to Washington Heights and saw the evidence of an evolution. He had been working all along, of course, making beautiful, surprising prints, but also moving away from portraiture and figurative photography and the studio—the place where his brother thrived. Indeed, with his latest work, Edward has taken the camera out of the equation entirely, working exclusively in the darkroom: his domain. His photograms are in the tradition of Man Ray or, more recently, Adam Fuss, and yet they are more painterly and abstract. In many ways, his work is about the basic elements of drawing—pattern, circle, line, repetition—except in this case, he is drawing with light. The work is at once influenced by his brother yet completely his own. Something Robert Mapplethorpe could literally never have produced.
On the night of Edward’s preview two weeks ago in Chelsea, he seemed relaxed and happy, surrounded by his friends, his art-world associates, his girlfriend of over ten years, Michelle Yun—and connections to his brother: Jack Walls, Patti Smith, people from the Mapplethorpe Foundation. Stenciled in big letters on the white-white wall of the gallery was his name: EDWARD MAPPLETHORPE.
One afternoon, we go for a walk on Bond Street and peer into the dirty peephole-size window on the door to the lobby of his brother’s old building. Edward has not stood on this stoop since just after Robert died, and I can feel his discomfort as he strains to see into the past. “It looks exactly the same,” he says. We pick our way along the construction zone of luxury real estate that Bond Street has become, and Edward points out the route he used to take to score his daily heroin fix. When we stop for lunch, I ask him if he thinks Robert was threatened by him. “The most seemingly secure people in the world are the most insecure. The fact that he would be like, ‘You have to change your name’? I’m your little brother! You’re worried about me eclipsing your career? It’s ridiculous. But I’m sure that’s what it was. And then in his later years, he had to be envious because I was going to live. He wasn’t like, ‘Edward, take the bull by the horns and continue this thing.’ I wish he had said that. You can’t ask for something like that. I was always just sitting and praying for it. Even on his deathbed. Somehow, just give me a sign that I’m doing the right thing. That you’re happy, that you’re proud of me.” He starts to cry. “It just pains me that I never got that. I’m sure my career would be a lot different, I’d be a lot more successful right now, if he had just given me his blessing. If he had just said, ‘You know what, I admire what you’ve done.’ ”
He wipes his eyes. “And sometimes I think, Could you have chosen a more difficult path? I can’t think of one that would be worse!”
I ask him what he wants now that he seems to have come to a turning point in his work. “I don’t need to have millions,” he says. “I don’t need to be a superstar. I would like to be respected by people in the art world and have people appreciate what I do. I don’t need to be Jeff Koons. I don’t need to be … Robert Mapplethorpe!” This makes him laugh. But then, quietly, he says, “He did. He needed to be Robert Mapplethorpe.”