Robert Mapplethorpe - Self Portrait, 1980

Robert Mapplethorpe

United States 1946 - 1989

Photography, Collage

Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe
United States
August 22, 2014
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via his Linkedin profile:

With his name forged on the list of the most era-defining artists coming from the 20th century, Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer known for his controversial, large-scale, highly stylized black and white images that literally changed the medium of modern photography. His arguably perfect portfolio featured a wide array of subjects and themes, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images. His most provocative work by far is that of the underground bondage and sadomasochistic scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The strong note of homoeroticism inside this project fuelled a national dispute over the public funding of controversial artwork and to this day remains as one of the strongly debated subjects of contemporary art. The life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe was a true cornerstone of the modern photography and the medium was never quite the same after he changed it for good.

The Beginning

Robert was born during the year of 1946 in Floral Park, Queens. As the artist himself stated, it was a quiet place to grow up in – perhaps too quiet, if you go by the Mapplethorpe’ words: I come from suburban America. It was a very safe environment and it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave. When he was about nineteen years of age, it came a time for him to move away from home. In 1963, he started studying at the prestigious Pratt Institute in nearby Brooklyn, where he studied drawing, painting, and sculpture, but mostly focused on Graphic Art as this was his major subject. Although considered a successful student, due to some unfortunate circumstances and disagreements, he dropped out of the Institute before he was able to graduate. Influenced by artists such as Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, Mapplethorpe spent his college years experimenting with a large variety of materials and sources in mixed-media collages – usually pictures he cut out of magazines and newspapers. In 1970, a year that will prove to be a real landmark for Mapplethorpe and his career, he bought a Polaroid camera and began taking his own photos, incorporating them into the aforementioned collage pieces. Robert was delighted with the results and stated that producing collages this way felt a lot more honest compared to the techniques he used earlier.

Early 70s And Patti Smith

Mapplethorpe quickly found satisfaction taking Polaroid photographs independently from mixed-media and soon he stopped incorporating them into collage pieces – as a matter of fact, it seems that photos took precedent over his collages as he started devoting one hundred percent of his time to taking them. In 1970, the same year when Robert started to take more serious photographs, the artist moved into the Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s girlfriend he knew for about three years at the time. The two were in a complicated on-and-off love relationship but still represented each other’s greatest supporters in terms of artistic expressions. Soon after moving in the hotel, Robert’s career took off in a great fashion. In 1973, the Light Gallery in New York City organized Robert Mapplethorpe’s first solo gallery exhibition, simply titled as Polaroids. It was an absolute success. Two years later, he obtained a professional Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking images of his close circle of friends and acquaintances, all of whom were an artistic story in their own right – musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars and members of the S&M underground. Robert Mapplethorpe started to make quite a name for himself and was building a reputation of a rebel artist that lives for his uncompromising work. During the early 1970s, Robert frequently worked on commercial projects, designing album covers for Patti Smith’s music records and creating a series of portraits for the Interview Magazine – a newspaper established by the legendary Andy Warhol.

Mapplethorpe’s Mature Artworks: Nudes, Still Lifes and Celebrities

In the second half of the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe’s career was going nowhere but up. In 1977, he participated in Documenta 6 in Kassel, West Germany and in 1978, the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City became his exclusive dealer. And as he was quickly becoming a bigger star, Mapplethorpe’s portfolio started to stand out as some of the most characteristic work out there. He stubbornly stuck to the black and white images which became his trademark by then. After he took a few pictures of the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1976, Mapplethorpe did a series on Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion. This was just a beginning of their collaborations – over the next several years they worked on a series of portraits and figure studies, a film and a book. At the end of the 70s, already very famous Mapplethorpe grew increasingly interested in documenting the New York S&M scene, a great taboo subject at the time. The resulting photographs were shocking for their content and remarkable for their technical mastery. Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, Mapplethorpe produced a pack of images that simultaneously challenged and adhered to classical aesthetic standards – his work was provocative and controversial, but at the same time incorporated stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes and studio portraits that looked straight out of some photographic academy. Meanwhile, his career continued to flourish and it was impossible to be a photography fan and not run into his name everywhere you looked. Robert introduced and refined different techniques and formats, including color 20″ x 24″ Polaroids, photogravures, platinum prints on paper and linen, Cibachrome and dye transfer color prints – and achieved all this in less than a decade.

Later Work And Death

While much of Mapplethorpe’s work was considered erotically explicit and unconventional, he also became renowned for a classic sensibility in his choices regarding light, shadow and shape in black and white. He became a true master of such balances that made his portfolio instantly recognizable. During the mid-eighties, he designed sets for Lucinda Childs’ performance act Portraits in Reflection, created a photogravure series for Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and was commissioned by curator Richard Marshall to take portraits of New York artists. Unfortunately, the wild style of life simply caught up with him – Robert Mapplethorpe became a victim of the much feared and relatively unknown illness at the time, as he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Despite his disease, the time Mapplethorpe spent with the dire diagnosis was the most active of his already perfect career. He accelerated his creative efforts, broadened the scope of his photographic inquiry and accepted increasingly challenging commissions. Although it may seem logical that an artist’s work should become a lot darker in such circumstances, his images did not change that much during this time as they remained almost identical to the works before he was diagnosed with AIDS. The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective in 1988, a hugely successful exhibition organized almost one year before Robert’s death in 1989. After much struggle, Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, 42 years old, in Boston, Massachusetts. His body was cremated and the ashes buried in Queens, New York, in his mother’s grave, marked Maxey.

Robert Mapplethorpe Forever

Robert Mapplethorpe is widely recognized as a giant of the late century photography and today his perfect legacy is represented by several established galleries around the world, while his work can be found in the collections of some of the most important international museums dedicated to his medium. Besides the straight-out artistic and social aspects of his work, Mapplethorpe’s influence on today’s photography scene lives on through the work of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, an organization the artist personally helped establish in 1988. Robert’s vast, provocative, era-defining and powerful body of work has confirmed him as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century – as well as one of the first stops for any aspiring photographers that wish to be introduced to the artistic peaks of the medium.

Featured Image: Robert Mapplethorpe – Self-Portrait, 1980, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Mapplethorpe + MunchThe Munch Museum, Oslo, NorwaySolo
2016Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect MediumJ. Paul Getty Museum, Los AngelesSolo
2016Robert MapplethorpeGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris Marais, FranceSolo
2016Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect MediumLos Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USASolo
2016Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect MediumJ. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USASolo
2016Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect MediumLos Angeles County Museum of Art, Los AngelesSolo
2015/2016Robert Mapplethorpe: The Magic in the MuseThe Bowes Museum, Durham, UKSolo
2015/2016Robert Mapplethorpe: femmesMai 36 Galerie, Zurich, SwitzerlandSolo
2015The ObjectBaldwin Gallery, Aspen, CO, USASolo
2015Robert MapplethorpeGaleria Pepe Cobo, Lima, PeruSolo
2015Robert MapplethorpeRobert Miller Gallery, New York, NY, USASolo
2015Robert Mapplethorpe: UniqueSean Kelly Gallery, New York, NY, USASolo
2014As Above, So BelownOHWOW, Los Angeles, CASolo
2014Robert MapplethorpenWeinstein Gallery, Minneapolis, MNSolo
2014ARTIST ROOMS Robert MapplethorpenTate Modern, London, UKSolo
2014Mapplethorpe / RodinnMusee Rodin, Paris, FranceSolo
2014Robert MapplethorpenGrand Palais, Paris, FranceSolo
2014Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs from The Kinsey Institute CollectionnKinsey Institute, Bloomington, INSolo
2013/2014Robert Mapplethorpe: Saints and SinnersnSean Kelly Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2013Robert MapplethorpenBaldwin Gallery, Aspen, COSolo
2013Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion ShownAlison Jacques Gallery, London, UKSolo
2013Robert Mapplethorpe Curated by Isabelle HuppertnGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, AustriaSolo
2013Robert Mapplethorpe: FetishnGalerie Stefan Roepke, Cologne, GermanySolo
2013Robert Mapplethorpe: Au DébutnXavier Hufkens, Brussels, BelgiumSolo
2013Robert MapplethorpenGalleria Franco Noero, Turin, ItalySolo
2013Robert Mapplethorpe: Works from 1980 to 1989nGalería Elvira González, Madrid, SpainSolo
2013Artist Rooms Tour 2013nOld Gala House, Galashiels, ScotlandSolo
2013Robert Mapplethorpe: FlowersnSeibu, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2012/2013Robert MapplethorpenGaleria Senda, Barcelona, SpainSolo
2012/2013Robert MapplethorpenOlga Korper Gallery, Toronto, CanadaSolo
2012/2013In Focus: Robert MapplethorpenJ. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, CASolo
2012/2013Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZnLos Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CASolo
2012/2013Artist Rooms Scottish TournPerth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth, UKSolo
2012Mapplethorpe: PurenMai 36 Galerie, Zurich, SwitzerlandSolo
2012Artist Rooms Scottish TournThe Gallery at Linlithgow Burgh Halls, Linlithgow, UKSolo
2012Robert MapplethorpenLudwig Museum, Budapest, HungarySolo
2012Robert Mapplethorpe: FlowersnSeibu, Shibuya, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2012Mapplethorpe and Michael SaylesnXavier Laboulbenne, Berlin, GermanyGroup
2012Artist Rooms Scottish TournDunoon Burgh Hall, Dunoon, UKSolo
2011/2012Robert MapplethorpenForma Foundation for Photography, Milan, ItalySolo
2011/2012Robert Mapplethorpe Curated by Sofia CoppolanGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, FranceSolo
2011/2012Robert MapplethorpenOnassis Cultural Centre, Athens, GreeceSolo
201150 AmericansnSean Kelly Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2011Robert Mapplethorpe: Night WorknCurated by Scissor SistersnAlison Jacques Gallery, London, EnglandSolo
2011Robert MapplethorpenC/O Berlin, Berlin, GermanySolo
2011Robert Mapplethorpe - DesirednGaleri Nev, Istanbul, TurkeySolo
2011Robert Mapplethorpe curated by Pedro AlmodóvarnGalería Elvira González, Madrid, SpainSolo
2011En Plein AirnGalerie Stefan Roepke, Cologne, GermanySolo
2011Robert MapplethorpenFotografiska, Stockholm, SwedenSolo
2011Robert Mapplethorpe: Friends and AcquaintancesnGalerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin, GermanySolo
2011BlossomingnCurated by Klaus KertessnTexas Gallery, Houston, TXSolo
2011Robert Mapplethorpe: PortraitsnSan Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CASolo
2011Robert MapplethorpenThe i8 Gallery, Reykjavik, IcelandSolo
2011Robert Mapplethorpe Flowers: Selections from the JP Morgan Chase Art CollectionnMontclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJSolo
2010/2011Robert MapplethorpenOlga Korper Gallery, Toronto, CanadaSolo
2010Portraits/100 Years: August Sander, Robert Mapplethorpe and Alec SothnWeinstein Gallery, Minneapolis, MNGroup
2010Robert Mapplethorpe/Man RaynGallery Gio Marconin, Milan, ItalySolo
2010HorsesnBaldwin Gallery, Aspen, COSolo
2010Robert MapplethorpenMuseo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaSolo
2010Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in FormnMuseo d'Arte della Città di Lugano – Villa Malpensata, Lugano, SwitzerlandSolo
2010Robert MapplethorpenNRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, GermanySolo
2009/2010Artist Rooms TournMuseums Sheffield, Sheffield, UKSolo
2009/2010Robert Mapplethorpe and Sterling RubynGalerie Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, BelgiumSolo
2009/2010Polaroids: MapplethorpenHenry Art Gallery, Seattle, WASolo
2009 Artist Rooms TournInverness Museum and Art Gallery, Inverness, UKSolo
2009Robert Mapplethorpe: A Season in HellnAlison Jacques Gallery, London, EnglandSolo
2009Robert MapplethorpenCentro de Arte Contemporáneo Malaga, Malaga, SpainSolo
2009Robert Mapplethorpe: Silver Prints and Polaroids in ContextnGalerie Stefan Roepke, Cologne, GermanySolo
2009Black, White and SilvernMarc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, CASolo
2009Polaroids: MapplethorpenModern Art Oxford, Oxford, EnglandSolo
2009Robert MapplethorpenTR 3 Gallery and National Gallery, Ljubljana, SloveniaSolo
2009Polaroids: MapplethorpenThe Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Evanston, ILSolo
2009Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in FormnGalleria dell'Accademia, Florence, ItalySolo
2009WomennWeinstein Gallery, Minneapolis, MNSolo
2009DeadlinenMusée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, FranceSolo
2009Robert MapplethorpenEs Baluard Museu d'Art Modern i Contemporani de Palma, Mallorca, SpainSolo
2009Robert Mapplethorpe: PortraitsnPalm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CASolo
2009Robert Mapplethorpe: PortraitsnCenter for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZSolo
2009Flowers and Body PartsnGaleria Fortes Vilaça, São Paolo, BrazilSolo
2008Lisa, Milton, Thomas & KennGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, FranceSolo
2008Certain PeoplennSean Kelly Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2008Works 1975-1988nMai 36 Galerie, Zurich, SwitzerlandSolo
2008Polaroids: MapplethorpenWhitney Museum of American Art, New York, NYSolo
200850 New York Artists and Other PortraitsnBaldwin Gallery, Aspen, COSolo
2008Robert MapplethorpenOlga Korper Gallery, Toronto, CanadaSolo
2007/2008VanitasnGalería Pepe Cobo, Madrid, SpainSolo
2007Robert Mapplethorpe: Unique Works from the 1970snMarc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, CASolo
2007Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken & LydianWeinstein Gallery, Minneapolis, MNSolo
2007Robert Mapplethorpe - WomennGalerie Stefan Roepke, Cologne, GermanySolo
2006/2007Robert Mapplethorpe: PicturesnBernheimer Fine Old Masters, Munich, GermanySolo
2006Robert Mapplethorpe: Lisa LyonnBaldwin Gallery, Aspen, COSolo
2006Sacred and Profane: Robert MapplethorpeFototeca de Cuba, nHavana, CubaSolo
2006Robert Mapplethorpe: PicturesnBernheimer Fine Old Masters, Munich, GermanySolo
2006Robert Mapplethorpe: Still Moving & LadynAlison Jacques Gallery, nLondon, EnglandSolo
2006Robert MapplethorpenScottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, ScotlandSolo
2006Robert Mapplethorpe Curated by Robert WilsonnGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, AustriaSolo
2005Robert Mapplethorpe Curated by Hedi SlimaneGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, FranceSolo
2005Robert Mapplethorpe: Tra Antico e Moderno. Un'antologiaPalazzina della Promotrice delle Belle Arti, Turin, ItalySolo
2005Robert Mapplethorpe: Porträts und ErotikGalerie im Alten Rathaus, Prien am Chiemsee, Germany Solo
2005Robert MapplethorpeOlga Korper Gallery, Toronto, CanadaSolo
1996ChildrenRobert Miller Gallery, New YorkSolo
1994The Robert Mapplethorpe GalleryGuggenheim Museum, New YorkSolo
1991Robert Mapplethorpe, Early WorksRobert Miller Gallery, New YorkSolo
1989Robert Mapplethorpe, the Perfect MomentWashington Project for the Arts, Washington D.C.Solo
1988UntitledWhitney Museum of Art, New YorkSolo
1988New Color WorkRobert Miller Gallery, New York, NYSolo
1988Robert Mapplethorpe, the Perfect MomentInstitute of Contemporary Art, PhiladelphiaSolo
1983Lady, Lisa LyonsLeo Castelli Gallery, New YorkSolo
1980Black MalesJurka Gallery, Amsterdam, NetherlandsSolo
1979 Robert Mapplethorpe: 1970-1975Robert Samuel Gallery, New YorkSolo
1977PortraitsHolly Solomon Gallery, New YorkSolo
1973PolaroidsLight Gallery, New YorkSolo