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 on Robert Mapplethorpe
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).