Robert Mapplethorpe - Photographs New York Tuesday, April 4, 2023 | Phillips
  • “While Mapplethorpe may have created this photograph to shock, its success as a provocation rests on its solid compositional structure; there is not a single element that could be adjusted to improve it.”
    —Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen
    Man in Polyester Suit encapsulates Robert Mapplethorpe’s unique ability to create an image that is both confrontational in content and technically and aesthetically perfect. It has become, in the years since its making, one of Mapplethorpe’s best-known images and has inspired both acclaim and controversy. Over 40 years after its making, Man in Polyester Suit has lost none of its undeniable impact. Its subject is Mapplethorpe’s lover, Milton Moore, with whom he had a tempestuous and ultimately doomed relationship. It is a testament to Mapplethorpe’s talents that, out of the messiness of his physical and emotional entanglement with Moore, he created this austere, highly stylized, and transgressively charged photograph.


    The image was exhibited in no fewer than 20 international museum and gallery venues during Mapplethorpe’s lifetime, including his 1981 exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein and his multi-venue 1983 retrospective originating at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The photograph was famously impounded by customs officials upon its arrival for that exhibition. Man in Polyester Suit was shown in the Whitney Museum’s 1988 retrospective and was a cornerstone of the Black Males exhibition in Amsterdam, New York, and Rome.  Mapplethorpe included it, with a slightly different cropping and in a smaller format than the print offered here, in his Z Portfolio of 1981, and it was illustrated in his definitive collection of Black male nudes, The Black Book of 1986.


    Man in Polyester Suit became a key focal point of the controversy surrounding The Perfect Moment, the seminal retrospective exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work that originated at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1988 and was slated for six subsequent museum venues in America. The presence of Mapplethorpe’s explicit images of sadomasochism and other sexually charged photographs on display in public venues, some of which received government funding, raised the ire of conservative lawmakers, Senator Jesse Helms foremost among them. Helms railed against the supposed obscenity of the material on the floor of the United States Senate and pushed for legislation that would limit funding for the arts. Man in Polyester Suit was one of four Mapplethorpe images that Helms sent to fellow congressmen to illustrate his condemnation of the show and to encourage their support.

    “[Man in Polyester Suit] has come to be regarded as perhaps the most important picture from the [The Perfect Moment], as well as Mapplethorpe’s most slyly powerful work, a deadpan commentary on race, class, sexual stereotypes and the slippery nature of photography itself that continues to jangle nerves.”
    —The New York Times

     As it toured, The Perfect Moment accrued more and more controversy. When the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C., abruptly withdrew as a venue for the exhibition, the tension increased. By the time police entered the exhibition at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and charged the institution and its director with obscenity, international attention reached a peak. The media storm that followed, and the ensuing trial, played out against the grim backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, and the photographer’s own illness and death from the disease in 1989. Ultimately, the Museum and its director were acquitted, and a victory had been won for free speech, artistic freedom, and institutional autonomy.


    In the intervening years, Man in Polyester Suit has remained one of Mapplethorpe’s signature images. Ingrid Sischy referred to it as Mapplethorpe’s ‘wryest image of all’ in The New Yorker. The critic Arthur C. Danto has suggested that Man in Polyester Suit is Mapplethorpe’s masterpiece. It is one of those works, like Edouard Manet’s Olympia or Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde, that challenged accepted ways of portraying the body in art. These works and their makers were vilified upon their debut. Ultimately, Man in Polyester Suit endures because its challenge remains relevant.

    • Provenance

      Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe
      Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1994
      Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1997

    • Exhibited

      Other prints of this image were included in the artist's travelling European retrospective at the following museums: Louisiana Museum, Copenhagen; Museum for Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg; Fortuny Museum, Venice; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv; Kunsthaus-Wien, Vienna; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Hayward Gallery, London; Gallery of Photography, Dublin; Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo; and Staatgalerie, Stuttgart.

    • Literature

      Celant, MAPPLETHORPE, p. 145
      Holborn and Levas, Mapplethorpe, pp. 117, 335
      Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, p. 69
      Murray, Mapplethorpe and the Flower: Radical Sexuality and the Limits of Control, p. 50, fig. 3
      Schirmer/Mosel, Robert Mapplethorpe: Ten by Ten, pl. 55
      Schirmer/Mosel, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Black Book, pl. 55
      Yale University Press, Mapplethorpe + Munch, p. 159

    • Catalogue Essay

      Other prints of this image are held in various collections, including at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Getty Research Institute/Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

    • Artist Biography

      Robert Mapplethorpe

      American • 1946 - 1989

      After studying drawing, painting and sculpture at the Pratt Institute in the 1960s, Robert Mapplethorpe began experimenting with photography while living in the notorious Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith. Beginning with Polaroids, he soon moved on to a Hasselblad medium-format camera, which he used to explore aspects of life often only seen behind closed doors.

      By the 1980s Mapplethorpe's focus was predominantly in the studio, shooting portraits, flowers and nudes. His depiction of the human form in formal compositions reflects his love of classical sculpture and his groundbreaking marriage of those aesthetics with often challenging subject matter. Mapplethorpe's style is present regardless of subject matter — from erotic nudes to self-portraits and flowers — as he ceaselessly strove for what he called "perfection of form."

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Man in Polyester Suit

Gelatin silver print, printed 1980.
17 3/4 x 14 in. (45.1 x 35.6 cm)
Sheet size 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm)

Signed, dated by Michael Ward Stout, Executor, in ink, estate copyright credit reproduction limitation and lifetime copyright credit reproduction stamp on the reverse of the flush-mount. Number 3 from an edition of 15.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $355,600

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New York Auction 4 April 2023