Robert Mapplethorpe

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Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a controversial American photographer whose work centered on still lifes (mainly flower images), portraiture, and figurative work which was sexually explicit and sensual. A retrospective of his work in 1989 led to a reexamination of government support of the arts.

Robert Mapplethorpe was born in Floral Park, New York, in 1946. Although he found his middle-class upbringing and neighborhood somewhat confining, he responded with fascination to the Catholic ritual and mystery which were a part of his early years. This aspect of the Church influenced his entire life. It informed the haunted, mysterious quality of much of his art even though in later years he did not consider himself a religious person.

During the 1960s Mapplethorpe attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where he studied painting, drawing, and sculpture. His earliest recognition came from mixed media collages, done in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which incorporated magazine pictures of nudes.

Mapplethorpe soon began his own experiments with photography, first using a Polaroid. By the mid 1970s he considered himself a photographer. He had his first one-person show in 1976 at New York's Light Gallery, an exhibit which included Polaroid photos of flowers, portraits, and erotic images.

Mapplethorpe's notoriety came from a series of sexually explicit photographs of Manhattan's gay community which he made during the 1970s. The implied violence and sadomasochism of some of these images have caused some critics to label them pornography. Others feel that because Mapplethorpe was a part of the community which he recorded, he helped New York gays to define themselves in a positive way. The reaction to these photographs is very much the viewer's own, as Mapplethorpe included no moralizing commentary in his pictures.

From his earliest work in Polaroid, he went on to produce silver and platinum prints on both paper and canvas. He also worked with color photography and continued to produce photocollages and work in three dimensions, allowing his art to cross the line from photography into the realms of painting and sculpture.

There are three major themes in Robert Mapplethorpe's photographic work: still life, portraiture, and the figure. These themes remained constant from his earliest experiments in the medium to the end of his career.

Mapplethorpe's still lifes are mainly flower images—lilies, orchids, tulips, irises, birds of paradise—photographed in both color and black and white. The images are pristine and perfect, with a single blossom or a grouping of flowers isolated against a dark background. Both the structure and the texture of these subjects appealed to Mapplethorpe's sensibilities, and the sensuality of the images is arresting. Mapplethorpe spoke of a "black edge" to his flowers, rather than of their softness.

In the realm of portraiture, Mapplethorpe photographed many prominent contemporary figures, mainly artists and celebrities, including artist Andy Warhol, artist/musician Laurie Anderson, singer Patti Smith, artist Louise Bourgeois, actress Kathleen Turner, actor Donald Sutherland, and fellow photographer Lord Snowdon. These cool, detached images reveal Mapplethorpe's careful way of working. Some have criticized them for being "slick," while others feel they are among the finest portrait photographs ever made. Mapplethorpe also created a series of self-portraits. Often sexually ambiguous or androgynous, these images chronicle the artist's maturation process.

Most controversial, of course, is Mapplethorpe's figurative work, which is also the most sexually explicit and sensual. Once again, an interest in gender ambiguity and androgyny is evident. In addition to the period of interest in specifically homoerotic subject matter, Mapplethorpe also pushed the limits of gender definition and identity in a photo essay made between 1980 and 1982 of the female body builder Lisa Lyon, in which he explored various "types" of representation of woman—goddess, temptress, bride, etc. Also noteworthy in his figurative work are his studies of African American males.

Mapplethorpe's work became increasingly respectable in the 1980s as it became less sexual and more classical. Always a formalist, his emphasis throughout his career was on clear, geometric composition and skillful manipulation of studio lighting in order to bring out the subtle nuances of surface textures. Working in a controlled studio setting, he managed to freeze a moment in time.

Mapplethorpe drew inspiration from late 19th-and early 20th-century photography. He particularly liked the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar, Edward Weston, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and F. Holland Day.

Although his work deals with sex, violence, and race, three extremely sensitive and often confrontational themes, its pristine quality enables his photography to bridge the gap between provocative subject matter and artistic respectability. Today his photographs are in the permanent collections of most major art museums.

Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS on March 9, 1989. Soon after, his name came to be linked with controversies surrounding government support of the arts. In the summer of 1989 some members of Congress vocally opposed the use of National Endowment for the Arts funding in support of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment a retrospective exhibition which included some of Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit images. This spurred an ongoing debate not only about the use of government funds to support the arts, but also about censorship in general. The issue in question is whether the government should place restrictions on its arts funding based on the content of the work. In Washington, DC The Perfect Moment was canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989. The following year the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati mounted an exhibit of Mapplethorpe's photographs that was challenged by local police. As controversial after death as he was during his lifetime, Mapplethorpe has become something of a symbol for artistic freedom in the late 20th century.

Further Reading

Janet Kardon's exhibition catalog, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment (1989), is a recent and well-documented source of information on Mapplethorpe's photography. It includes an exhaustive bibliography and an exhibition history as well as essays by Kardon, Kay Larson, and David Joselit and a dedication by Patti Smith. An earlier catalog, Robert Mapplethorpe, by Richard Marshall, was created for the photographer's first major retrospective at the Whitney Museum (1988). Among Mapplethorpe's own books are a monograph, Robert Mapplethorpe (1987), Some Women (1989), and Black Book (1986), as well as several collaborative efforts, the most noteworthy being Certain People: A Book of Portraits done with Susan Sontag (1985). □

Mapplethorpe, Robert

views updated May 18 2018


MAPPLETHORPE, Robert (b. 4 November 1946; d. 9 March 1989), artist, photographer.

The work and name of Robert Mapplethorpe have become synonymous with issues of censorship and homosexuality. In June 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., cancelled a Mapplethorpe retrospective entitled The Perfect Moment, which was scheduled to open a few weeks later. The cancellation, which occurred amid conservative attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which had partially funded The Perfect Moment, provoked a national controversy over creative freedom and homoerotic art. That controversy led, in turn, to content restrictions on federally funded art and the attempted dismantling of the NEA.

Mapplethorpe had died of AIDS-related causes in March 1989, three months prior to the Corcoran cancellation. By the time of his death, he had emerged as one of the most successful U.S. art photographers of the post–World War II era. His elegant prints commanded critical attention (if not always praise) and high prices within the burgeoning market for art photography in the late 1970s and 1980s. In order to augment the market value of his work, Mapplethorpe often presented his photographs as luxury objects, whether by printing them on linen, surrounding them with fabrics such as silk, velvet, or leather, or enclosing them in unique frames of his own design.

Throughout his career, Mapplethorpe organized his photography into three major themes: still lifes, portraits, and homosexuality—or, as one magazine put it, "flowers, faces, and fetishes" (Fritscher, p. 15). Each of these themes was filtered through a signature style that emphasized formal symmetry, intricate tonal gradations, and an utter clarity of texture and visual detail. Mapplethorpe delighted in presenting wildly different subjects as equally stylized forms of photographic delectation. "I don't think there's that much difference," he once said, "between a photograph of [a] fist up someone's ass and a photograph of carnations in a bowl" (Hodges). Mapplethorpe's pictures of sadomasochism were no less aesthetic than his still lifes, and his pictures of flowers could be as erotically suggestive as his portraits of leathermen.

Although Mapplethorpe's reputation as an artist rests almost entirely on his photographic output, he studied painting and sculpture (not photography) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, from 1963 to 1969. As a student, Mapplethorpe favored psychedelic paintings and drawings based loosely on French surrealism and the engravings of William Blake. In 1967, Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith, an aspiring poet and singer, and the two moved in together in an apartment near Pratt. Smith became one of Mapplethorpe's best friends and frequent models. In 1969, Mapplethorpe dropped out of Pratt and moved, with Smith, into the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.

At this time, Mapplethorpe was creating collages and mixed media objects, many of which incorporated male nude photographs appropriated from pornographic magazines. These works, which bore titles such as Ah Men, Cowboy, and Untitled (Blow Job), sexualized the male body while simultaneously suggesting, through the use of obscuring bars and spray paint, the censorship to which such homoerotic images had historically been subjected. For all their visual wit, Mapplethorpe's collages were not considered commercially viable by the galleries he approached at the time. Perhaps because of this, Mapplethorpe moved away from collage and mixed media work and increasingly focused on photography.

In 1972, Mapplethorpe met Sam Wagstaff, a wealthy art collector and curator who became his mentor and, briefly, his lover. With Wagstaff's help, Mapplethorpe landed his first one-man show at the Light Gallery in New York in 1973. The exhibition featured Polaroid photographs, several of which were self-portraits. Following the show, Mapplethorpe turned to large-format press camera and, ultimately, to a Hasselblad.

In 1975, Smith signed a contract with Arista records and Mapplethorpe shot the cover for her first LP, Horses. Mapplethorpe's stark portrait of the singer in a man's shirt and suspenders, standing against a blank white wall, marked one of the aesthetic highpoints of his early career. Between 1977 and 1980, he produced a series of intense and impressive photographs of gay sadomasochism, of its practitioners and paraphernalia, while continuing to create pictures of flowers and celebrities. During this time, Mapplethorpe was taken on by the Robert Miller Gallery in New York and developed an international reputation, with one-man shows in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels.

Around 1980, Mapplethorpe began to photograph black men, some of whom he met at gay bars and pursued for both sexual and photographic purposes. Unlike the men in the sadomasochistic pictures, Mapplethorpe's black male nudes are always muscular, youthful, and well endowed. The nudes have been cut to the very pattern of Mapplethorpe's desire for them. In 1986, Mapplethorpe published The Black Book, a controversial collection of black male nudes, which continues to stand as one of his signature projects. Later that same year, Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1988, his health on the decline, he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, a charitable organization that funds both AIDS research and photography exhibitions and research.


Danto, Arthur C. Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Fritscher, Jack. "The Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery." Son of Drummer [special issue of Drummer magazine] (1978): 15.

Hodges, Parker. "Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographer." Manhattan Gaze (10 December 1979–6 January 1980).

Kardon, Janet. Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1988.

Marshall, Richard, Richard Howard, and Ingrid Sischy. Robert Mapplethorpe. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988.

Meyer, Richard. "The Jesse Helms Theory of Art." October 104 (Spring 2003): 131–148.

Richard Meyer

see alsoart history; censorship, pornography, and obscenity law and policy; new right; visual art.

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