Everyone (or at least everyone with taste and a spirit of enquiry) knows who Robert Mapplethorpe is, and most of those people will know that he had three great muses – people who modelled for him time and again and helped shape his art.
Sam Wagstaff is one. Patti Smith is the one most people know. Mapplethorpe took the iconic black and white portrait that adorns the cover of her greatest gift to the world, the album Horses. That’s a photo that has resonance way beyond being merely packaging. Ask any teenage girl from the seventies who went on to write poetry, play in a band, or create a fanzine. Ask any boy for that matter.
I discovered the Mapplethorpe muse who most fascinated me via a large format paperback book I found in a remaindered book stall in the early eighties. She was an impressively sculpted bodybuilder called Lisa Lyon and the book was called, simply, Lady.
I bought it for a pound, took it home, loved it, imitated it, used it as masturbatory inspiration (hey, what can I say, I like powerful women!).
Lyon was, and is still regarded as one of the great female bodybuilders, one of the pioneers. She began her career in martial arts, through the Japanese art of kendo, and because it takes upper body strength, started weight training. Which, in turn, led to bodybuilding.
In 1979 she won the first international contest for female bodybuilders and went on to write the first book on the subject, Lisa Lyon’s Body Magic. She appeared in Playboy and according to Wikipedia could “dead-lift 225 pounds, bench-press 120 pounds, and squat 265 pounds; two and a half times her own weight.”
When photographers requested she do a shoot, she got it. Because she’d actually been an art student at UCLA, she understood both what made a photo work and what work it took to make a photo. She posed for Helmut Newton and for Marcus Leatherdale amongst others. Leatherdale was Robert Mapplethorpe’s office manager and an excellent photographer.
But Mapplethorpe’s photos of Lyon are something else. Like Tom of Finland, Mapplethorpe shot women like he shot men. His portraits of Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Sigourney Weaver and others are devoid of sensuality. They’re kind of blank, blunt, non-relfective. They’re like beautifully crafted passport photos.
But with Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe went somewhere else. He created a character in almost every photograph – as if we were channeling Cindy Sherman. There’s Lyon as athlete, dominatrix, bride, fashion icon, boxer, porn star.
“When I first saw her undraped it was hard to believe that this fine girl should have this form,” said Mapplethorpe.
“My relationship with Lisa is not just her body […] I’m just as interested in her head as I am in her body.” He dug and explored the light across her muscular frame, her veined arms, her chiselled jawbone and cheeks.
For her part, Lyon seems to have disappeared from view. She’s still alive, as far as we know. In the meantime, seek out Lady, the book of portraits of Lyon taken by Mapplethorpe.
She’s a strong and inspiring woman, and for me, as important a figure in the NY art scene of the early eighties as Laurie Anderson or indeed Patti Smith herself. She’s just been forgotten.