Mapplethorpe, Robert 1946–1989

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Mapplethorpe, Robert

Robert Mapplethorpe was a visual artist most famous for his photography, which frequently dealt with homoerotic themes and multiracial sensuality. He was born in Queens, New York, on November 4, 1946, and died in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 9, 1989 from complications associated with AIDS. His ashes were buried in his mother's grave, but his name has never been added to the headstone. He is remembered for his artwork, which combined fine art aesthetics with quasi-pornographic subjects, as well as for the political controversies over federal funding for the arts in the 1980s that centered on his work.


Mapplethorpe was an artist from an early age, demonstrating as early as high school his interest in work whose form and subject matter were nontraditionally paired. He was first exposed to pornography in the summer between high school and college while working in Manhattan. The images of naked men became a source of inspiration to him. Much of his early work was collage, using images cut from magazines. As his own style developed, images from pornographic magazines became more prominent in his work. Mapplethorpe enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in 1963, where he was a member of Reserve Officers' Training Course (ROTC) and a military fraternity, both at the insistence of his father. Whereas he never pursued a military career, the experience did expose him to a kind of eroticized hypermasculinity, which would later emerge as sadism and masochism (S&M) iconography in his work.

During college Mapplethorpe met musician, singer, and poet Patti Smith (b. 1946), who would become one of his most important and influential lovers and collaborators as well as being the first in his pattern of using people he was sexually attracted to as models. Smith's physical androgyny and sexual ambiguity matched his own, making them an ideally paired couple in some ways. They wore each other's clothes and collaborated on artistic projects while living together in the iconic Chelsea Hotel. In 1968 Smith ended their romantic relationship, and Mapplethorpe began to explore his sexual attraction to men. He and Smith reconciled in 1969, but Mapplethorpe's sexual and artistic life continued to involve male subjects, and they both openly had other relationships with men.

He began to work on collages of images from male fitness and physique magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as from homoerotic artist Tom of Finland (1920–1991). He became increasingly inspired by leather and bondage fetishes, and his work began to reflect those influences. In 1970 Mapplethorpe moved from collage work and assemblages to photography. One of his early photographs of Smith became the cover image for her debut album Horses in 1975. The image is typical of Mapplethorpe in many ways: it is black and white; the androgynous Smith, dressed in men's clothing, defies typical categories of gender or sexuality; the pose (based on an Albrecht Dürer [1471–1528] self-portrait from 1500) shows an informed and academic interest in the formal qualities of the visual image while being used for a radically nontraditional purpose.


Throughout the 1970s Mapplethorpe cultivated connections to the international art scene through his friendships and affairs with influential men. He had his first one-person show on his twenty-fourth birthday in November 1970. His work became increasingly erotic over time, and in February 1977, he had his first exhibition of what he called his dirty pictures, small-format Polaroid erotic images. On the same night a separate showing called "Portraits" opened in a different gallery. This splitting of material between multiple venues would become a pattern in his career: the erotic, quasi-pornographic material brought him fame, particularly among the gay community, whereas the portraiture was admired by a larger audience and assured an income. The two forms often merged in some of Mapplethorpe's most mature work. The image from the "Erotic Pictures" exhibit of 1977 that gained the most notoriety was "Mr. 10 1/2," an image of porn star Marc Stevens with his penis on a butcher block. The bulk of the images in the exhibit were of an S&M theme, although most were obviously staged. His later work would become known for the sense (or actuality) of having captured an actual sexual moment in progress.

In 1979 Mapplethorpe and Smith opened a joint exhibit called "Film and Stills," which brought a great deal of media attention and secured Mapplethorpe as a major figure in the New York arts scene. This fame not only made people want to model for him, but made him a desirable sexual partner. During this period Mapplethorpe juggled multiple long-term lovers and a constant stream of one-night stands and anonymous sexual encounters. One sexual and artistic partnership was with Robert Sherman, whom he met at a gay bar in Manhattan. Mapplethorpe was fascinated by Sherman, who was pale and entirely hairless (including eyelashes and eyebrows), the result of a rare form of alopecia. This made him a unique and fascinating subject. Between 1983 and 1985 Sherman was paired with Ken Moody, an African-American bodybuilder who also suffered from alopecia. The juxtaposition of the two hairless bodies, one dark and one light, became one of Mapplethorpe's most famous images.


Mapplethorpe's first succès de scandale was his 1979 show "Censored" in New York. He knew that his hard-core S&M photographs, including images of anal fisting, would not be viable for a show in a major gallery under normal circumstances. To make his work desirable to exhibitors, he created a sensation by requesting a showing in a San Francisco gallery, knowing he would be refused. When it became public that his images were too scandalous even for San Francisco audiences, galleries became interested. "Censored" opened in San Francisco on February 1979 in an exhibition space funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), his first interaction with this source of federal funds for the arts.

In the 1980s Mapplethorpe became famous on a national scale for his portraits of celebrities. This fame made him even more popular in the gay community, for he had managed to develop a gay aesthetic in photography, focusing on erotic, violent, and multiracial scenes while also maintaining a high profile among mainstream clients. His fame, therefore, contained an element of subversiveness that was a good deal subtler than many of his gay-themed images. Much of his work as a fashion photographer also focused on nude male images, which made the male form central to national ad campaigns while often ignoring the clothing. Whereas the female nude was common in advertising of the period, male models were usually fully clothed. Mapplethorpe was thus instrumental in making the naked male form a suitable subject for everyday images.

Mapplethorpe developed a series of illnesses in the 1980s, most probably opportunistic infections associated with AIDS. In September 1986 he developed a form of pneumonia common among people with AIDS, thus confirming the diagnosis he had suspected for several years. As Mapplethorpe's health declined, his images became more personal. While still violent and disturbing, they focused upon bodies that had become damaged, not bodies engaged in violence. One of his major works is Self Portrait, 1988, which showed his body emaciated and frail from disease. This image helped to create a kind of unique gay aesthetic that found dignity in suffering and brought meaning to illness.

His work remained controversial, however, and sparked a national battle over censorship of art. In 1989 Mapplethorpe contributed an image of a bloody penis to a group exhibit called "The Perfect Moment." Earlier that year an NEA-funded exhibit including Andres Serrano's (b. 1950) Piss Christ had been protested in North Carolina, causing Congressional action to limit federal funding for obscene or indecent work. Depictions of homosexual or sadomasochistic themes fell into the definition, bringing Mapplethorpe's work directly into conflict with federal guidelines. The institutions showing the Serrano and Mapplethorpe exhibitions were specifically defunded, causing the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. to cancel its participation in "The Perfect Moment." The Senate eventually decided to temper its restrictions and limit its involvement in specific funding decisions, but the debate continued. In 1990 the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, was tried on obscenity charges stemming from his decision to show "The Perfect Moment." Although many artists were involved, the case became known as "the Mapplethorpe obscenity trial," and hinged on the prosecution's contention that the images lacked any artistic merit to offset their offensive subject matter. Nobody from the artistic community would testify that the images were without merit, causing the case to end in acquittal.


Danto, Arthur, 1995. Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fritscher, Frank, 1994. Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera. Winter Park, FL: Hastings House.

Kobena, Mercer, 2000. "Just Looking for Trouble: Robert Mapplethorpe and Fantasies of Race" In Feminism & Pornography, ed. Drucilla Cornell. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morrisroe, Patricia, 1995. Mapplethorpe: A Biography. New York: Random House.

White, Edmund, 2004. Arts and Letters. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

                                  Brian D. Holcomb