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Mapplethorpe, Robert (1946-1989)

Mapplethorpe, Robert (1946-1989)

Robert Mapplethorpe's photography has become overshadowed by the controversy that surrounds much of it. Looking beyond the stir that his images generated reveals a body of work that includes elegant and rich black and white photographs of nudes, portraits, still lifes, and flowers. Mapplethorpe's imagery is clear and crisp, with a neutral background—he focuses completely on his subjects, composing everything as a still life. His nudes are reminiscent of classical sculpture, and his flowers are eroticized. The subject matter of some of his photographs is shocking, yet his fresh approach to image-making has the power to astonish.

The man who would shake up the art world grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Floral Park, New York. Mapplethorpe always felt drawn to art and the power of expression that art could hold. At age 17, he left home to attend the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a prominent art school. Originally, Mapplethorpe wanted to paint or sculpt; at that time, photography did not hold much credibility as a serious art form. Mapplethorpe, however, found photography by accident and continued to use it because it provided a viable outlet by which to express his ideas and make a statement. Many of his first artworks were constructions and collages, including pornographic images. As Mapplethorpe began taking his own photographs he started focusing on the human body as subject, first as a study in form—focusing on contours and tones—and also as portraiture. Some of Mapplethorpe's earliest portraits are of his friend, and later lover, rock singer Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe photographed Smith over a period of several years in the 1970s and 1980s. Other celebrities who later sat before his camera include Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Truman Capote, Glenn Close, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Gregory Hines, Roy Lichtenstein, Norman Mailer, Isabella Rossellini, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mapplethorpe also photographed some of his sponsors, serious collectors, and prestigious art world personalities, including Andy Warhol and Sam Wagstaff, who later became both his patron and his lover.

Mapplethorpe had a fascination with human form. In the early 1980s, he extensively photographed the body builder Lisa Lyon, culminating in the publication of the book Lady in 1983. With this project, his interest was not only in the beauty of the body and the structure of musculature, but with gender roles; he wished to document that women could develop—physically—their bodies like men. Exemplifying his other studies of the human form are his images of nude black men. These images are reminiscent of classical sculpture. Mapplethorpe—with his series of photographs Ajito (1981), a nude black man seated on a pedestal—reinterpreted the nineteenth century artist Wilhelm von Gloden's photograph of a male nude in classical pose. Throughout his career Mapplethorpe also used himself as subject; creating self portraits with a variety of poses, props, and degrees of make-up, he explored different emotions, personas, and gender distinctions.

Later work includes his studies of still lifes and flowers. He arranged the objects precisely. His approach to this genre was no different then his approach to people. Objectifying all subjects, Mapplethorpe tried to transcend his subjects. He brought lighting, composition, and other additional elements to a level he considered almost perfection. Critic Emmanuel Cooper states in Creative Camera, "For Mapplethorpe, photographing flowers was not very different from body parts. He honed in on the sensual aspects of the flowers, often using them as metaphors for physical contact and the ephemeral nature of beauty."

It is some of his earliest work which brought Mapplethorpe the most notoriety. Portfolio X, dating from the mid-1970s, consists of homoerotic and sado-masochistic imagery often depicting graphic sex acts. This work exposed the gay subculture of the 1970s to the mainstream while allowing Mapplethorpe to investigate these areas on his own, and to embrace his own homosexuality; he always claimed that he did not "photograph things I've not been involved in myself." Also featured within this grouping of photographs are two images of children, one of which, Rosie (1976), proved particularly controversial. In this image, Rosie's dress, pulled up by her knee, exposes her genitals.

Included in Mapplethorpe's retrospective The Perfect Moment (1989) were these images. Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, this exhibition became the catalyst for a public outcry regarding pornography and obscenity. One of the venues for the show, the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, and its director Dennis Barry, had pornography charges brought against them leading to prosecution. Although acquittal was the outcome for both, the museum continued to deal with many repercussions. Similarly, a subsequent venue, the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., experienced withdrawn funding and a shake-up in personnel. Additionally, the sado-masochistic images and the photograph of Rosie became exploited by Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina. The publicity generated from the pornography charges emboldened Senator Helms to introduce legislation prohibiting bene-ficiaries of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding from creating work that "may be considered obscene, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts…."

The debate surrounding Mapplethorpe's artworks took place a year after his death at age 42 from an AIDS-related illness. Mapplethorpe's legacy is far reaching. Previous to his death, he formed the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, an organization for funding AIDS-related medical research and the visual arts. Almost singlehandedly, Mapplethorpe focused the spotlight on photography as a viable art form. After his first major show in 1976, the prices for his images steadily rose, while also bringing other artists' photographic works into the limelight. The largest impact created by Mapplethorpe and his art, however, resulted from the controversy that surrounded his images. The aftermath altered funding for artists and redefined the criteria used to judge whether a work can hold the classification of art.

—Jennifer Jankauskas

Further Reading:

Cooper, Emmanuel. "The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe."Creative Camera. October-November 1996, 40-41.

Kardon, Janet, with essays by David Joselit and Kay Larson, and a dedication by Patti Smith. Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

Ripp, Allan, editor, with Carol Squires and Steven Koch."Mapplethorpe." American Photographer. January 1988, 44-55.

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