Why It's a Masterpiece

Man in Polyester Suit by Robert Mapplethorpe

In October 2015, the photograph Man in Polyester Suit by Robert Mapplethorpe was sold for $478,000 at Sotheby’s. Oleksandr Liapin explains why a penis sticking out of trousers costs so much.
Oleksandr Liapin

Journalist, photographer, editor-in-chief of Foto.ua website, curator of Bird In Flight photo school.


— What made Robert Mapplethorpe different from other photographers of his time who were capturing the nude form was that in his mature creative age he was almost mass-producing masterpieces. His best skill was the transformation of pornographic images into art images and turning his own rich sexual life into art.

Mapplethorpe is a product of his crazy epoch. Disco, rock, and punk music, the waves of drugs and the sea of alcohol, youth riots, free love, sex with random people in random places, and adapted Eastern philosophical movements inspired artists for creative feats. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jock Sterdzhes, Judy Dater, Andy Warhol, and many others were crushing the society’s taboo on portraying sexual scenes.

A rare artist did not wave a penis in public at the time. First rank celebrities gathered in Studio 54 club, half of them wearing their business suits unzipped, often with erect penises sticking out of them. It wasn’t even a theme sex club, it was just one of the popular party places. The world was enjoying love then — openly, extremely, pervertedly, sometimes in lethal doses. Some of the contemporaries said that if people aren’t at war, they fuck in a way that makes the world bulge at the seams and collapse as if from another world war.

Robert Mapplethorpe

American artist and photographer. Born in 1946 in Queens (NYC). Grew up in a family of observant Catholics. Except male erotics, also took photographs of children, fashion, film and political celebrities, as well as still life with flowers. Died at the age of 42 from complications caused by HIV. In 2015, his work Man in Polyester Suit was sold for $478,000 at Sotheby’s auction in London. In 1993, it was estimated at a mere $10,000.

First rank celebrities gathered in Studio 54 club, half of them wearing their business suits unzipped.

It would be surprising if Mapplethorpe — an extremely sensitive man, a radically active bisexual, who was still more of a homosexual, who preferred to have relationships with beautiful, powerful, and free people — stayed away from the main trends of contemporary art. His photographs may be considered a continuation of coitus that leads to the birth of wonderful superhumans. This is the arrogant exposure of yourself to God — and not as someone repentant and ripping their body to pieces, but as God himself. The photographer has his original interpretation of the lust for power and the equally strong desire to be a slave that coexists in one human being. The viewers should feel that they are raped, suppressed by senseless bodies of of live erotic statues.

At the same time, Mapplethorpe is a notorious provocateur. He appeals to pornography, but uses the classic traditions, addressed to the antique traditions. The photograph Man in Polyester Suit is almost a cover photo of the famous fresco in the House of Vettii in Pompeii, depicting the god of fertility Priapus who is weighing his gigantic penis on a scale.


A suit symbolizes authority and power, impunity and cruelty. A penis sticking out of it is an instrument of such power in a phallocratic society. Like with ancient man, Mapplethorpe worships the phallos, constantly identifying himself with it, admiring and enjoying it.

“Whether it’s a cock or a flower, I’m looking at it in the same way. …in my own way, with my own eyes,” the artist said. In one of the versions of the Man in Polyester Suit he depicted a revolver next to the erect penis sticking out of trousers. This was his way of hinting that a penis also means death. Mapplethorpe died from complications from HIV in 1989. Somebody’s penis, big and beautiful, ended the powerful career of an artist.

This was his way of hinting that a penis also means death.


Photograph of a Man in Polyester Suit is one of the most loved by Mapplethorpe’s fans. According to Deleuze, the work became an icon and a symbol of its time: “When everything is sexy, nothing is sex. It loses its definity, dissolves in the codes of power and beauty, disappears, and comes the epoch of a transsexual, an androgyn.”

The photograph was sold at Sotheby’s for $478,000. It became the quintessence of the whole body of work of the author, of his ideas and his way of life. The photograph created its version of heaven, the world, where only the phalos decides who is worthy of eternal happiness and who isn’t. The critic Elizabeth Blondi thinks that Mapplethorpe has secured himself a place in this heaven.

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