Robert Mapplethorpe (/ˈmeɪpəlˌθɔrp/; November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, known for his sometimes controversial large-scale, highly stylized black and white photography. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images of flowers. His most controversial work is that of the undergroundbondage and sadomasochistic BDSM scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s of New York. The homoeroticism of this work fuelled a national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork.
Mapplethorpe was born and grew up as a Roman Catholic of English and Irish heritage in Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Floral Park, Queens, New York City. His parents were Harry and Joan Mapplethorpe, and he grew up with five brothers and sisters. He studied for a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institutein Brooklyn, where he majored in Graphic Arts, though he dropped out in 1969 before finishing his degree. Mapplethorpe lived with his close friend Patti Smith (1967–74), and she supported him by working in bookstores. They created art together; and, even after he realized he was homosexual, they maintained a close relationship.
From 1977 until 1980, Mapplethorpe was the lover of gay writer and Drummer magazine editor Jack Fritscher.
Mapplethorpe took his first photographs in the late ’60s or early ’70s using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. During this time, he became friends with New Orleans artist George Dureau, whose work had a profound impact on Mapplethorpe, so much so that he restaged many of Dureau’s early photographs. By the 1980s his subject matter focused on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe’s first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s, his mentor and lifetime companion art curator Sam Wagstaff bought a top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street for Robert, where he lived and used as his shooting space. He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom.
Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, 42 years old, in a Boston, Massachusetts, hospital from complications arising from AIDS. His body was cremated and his ashes were buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Queens in New York, in his mother’s grave, marked “Maxey”.
Nearly a year before his death, the ailing Mapplethorpe helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. His vision for the Foundation was that it would be “the appropriate vehicle to protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about”. Since his death, the Foundation has not only functioned as his official estate and helped promote his work throughout the world, it has also raised and donated millions of dollars to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV infection. Mapplethorpe’s estate is represented by Xavier Hufkens, the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, the OHWOW gallery in Los Angeles, and several other galleries in partnership with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation donated the Robert Mapplethorpe Archive to the Getty Research Institute. The archive spans from 1970 – 1989.
Mapplethorpe worked primarily in a studio, and almost exclusively in black and white, with the exception of some of his later work and his final exhibit “New Colors”. His body of work features a wide range of subjects, but his main focus and the greater part of his work is erotic imagery. He would refer to some of his own work as pornographic,with the aim of arousing the viewer, but which could also be regarded as high art. His erotic art explored a wide range of sexual subjects, depicting the BDSM subculture of New York in the 1970s, portrayals of black male nudes, and classical nudes of female bodybuilders. Mapplethorpe was a participant observer for much of his erotic photography, participating in the sexual acts which he was photographing and engaging his models sexually.
In Patti Smith’s book, “Just Kids”, she writes this of Robert’s work: “Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity, and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace. He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism. As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, “His obscenity is never obscene.””
Other subjects included flowers, especially orchids and calla lilies, children, statues, and celebrities, which included Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading and Patti Smith. Smith was a longtime roommate of Mapplethorpe and a frequent subject in his photography, including a stark, iconic photograph that appears on the cover of Smith’s first album, Horses. His work often made reference to religious or classical imagery, such as a portrait of Patti Smith from 1986 which recalls Albrecht Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait.
The Perfect Moment (1989 solo exhibit tour)
In the summer of 1989, Mapplethorpe’s traveling solo exhibit brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts, as well as questions of censorship and the obscene. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had agreed to be one of the host museums for the tour. Mapplethorpe decided to show his latest series that he explored shortly before his death. Titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the show included photographs from his X Portfolio, which featured images of urophagia, BDSM and a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. The show was curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The hierarchy of the Corcoran and several members of the U.S. Congress were upset when the works were revealed to them, due the homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes of some of the work. Though much of his work throughout his career had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association, seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called “nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material.”
In June 1989, pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt became involved in the censorship issue. Nesbitt, a long-time friend of Mapplethorpe, revealed that he had a $1.5-million bequest to the museum in his will, but publicly promised that if the museum refused to host the exhibition, he would revoke the bequest. The Corcoran refused and Nesbitt bequeathed the money to the Phillips Collection instead. After the Corcoran refused the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the underwriters of the exhibition went to the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts,which showed all the images in its space from July 21 to August 13, 1989, to large crowds. In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and Dennis Barrie, were charged with obscenity. They were found not guilty by a jury.
According to the ICA, “The Corcoran’s decision sparked a controversial national debate: Should tax dollars support the arts? Who decides what is “obscene” or “offensive” in public exhibitions? And if art can be considered a form of free speech, is it a violation of the First Amendment to revoke federal funding on grounds of obscenity? To this day, these questions remain very much at issue.” Mapplethorpe became something of a cause célèbre for both sides of the American culture war. However, prices for many of the Mapplethorpe photographs doubled and even tripled as a consequence of all the attention. The artist’s notoriety supposedly also helped the sale at Christie’s auction house of Mapplethorpe’s own collection of furniture, pottery, silver and works by other artists, which brought about $8 million.
In 1998, the University of Central England was involved in a controversy when a book by Mapplethorpe was confiscated. A final-year undergraduate student was writing a paper on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and intended to illustrate the paper with a few photographs from Mapplethorpe, a book of the photographer’s work. She took the photographs to the local chemist to be developed and the chemist informed West Midlands Police because of the unusual nature of the images. The police confiscated the library book from the student and informed the university that the book would have to be destroyed. If the university agreed to the destruction, no further action would be taken.
The university Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Peter Knight, supported by the Senate, took the view that the book was a legitimate book for the university library to hold and that the action of the police was a serious infringement of academic freedom. The Vice-Chancellor was interviewed by the police, under caution, with a view to prosecution under the terms of the Obscene Publications Acts.
After the interview with the Vice-Chancellor, a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service for a determination by the Director of Public Prosecutions whether to proceed with a trial. After a delay of about six months, the affair came to an end when Dr. Knight was informed by the DPP that no action would be taken.
The Black Book
The 1986 solo exhibition “Black Males” and the subsequent book “The Black Book” sparked controversy for their depiction of black men. The images, erotic depictions of black males, were widely criticized for being exploitative. The work was largely phallocentric and sculptural, focusing on segments of the subject’s bodies. His purported intention with these photographs and the use of black male models was the pursuit of the Platonic ideal.Mapplethorpe’s initial interest with the black male form was inspired by films like Mandingo, and the interrogation scene in Cruising in which an unknown black character enters the interrogation room and slaps the protagonist across the face.
Criticism was the subject of a work by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991–1993). Ligon juxtaposes Mapplethorpe’s 91 images of black men in the 1988 publication Black Book with critical texts and personal reactions about the work to complicate the racial undertones of the imagery.