One of the most prolific and influential artists of the twentieth century, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the master of art photography, famed for his highly controversial and sexually explicit images, radically changed the preconceptions of medium and stretched its boundaries, both in themes and style. Mapplethorpe’s diverse body of work, includes portraiture and still life photographs of flowers, but is widely recognized for his dark and decadent photographs of erotic imagery. Often underestimated and even more often dismissed as being nothing more than pornography, Mapplethorpe created fine art photography of explicit nude forms, influenced both by classical traditions of great masters like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and, on the other end, surrealist photographs of Man Ray.
Born in the suburbs of New York (Floral Park in Queens, a good place, as he once said, to come from and to leave) in 1946, Robert Mapplethorpe enrolled in Brooklyn-based Pratt University in 1963, where he studied painting, drawing and sculpture. His work from these early days suggests Mapplethorpe’s search for his own artistic voice, but it already featured exploration of themes such as eroticism and sexuality. Drawing inspiration from artists such as Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, Mapplethorpe’s early artworks include jewelry, statuary and, more significantly in terms of his development, mixed media collages, often featuring found objects and cut out magazine pictures.
In the early 1970s, after he acquired his first Polaroid camera, Robert Mapplethorpe started taking his own photos, with the idea to move away from “stealing” magazine published images and to incorporate his own work into his collages. This fundamental and milestone transition lead to his first solo gallery exhibition, called Polaroids, which took place in the New York City’s Light Gallery. During this formative period of his life, Mapplethorpe lived with his friend, punk-rock musician and writer Patti Smith, who supported him both financially and artistically. Patti Smith proved to have had strong and constructive influence on his artistic development.
Next important step in Robert Mapplethorpe’s artistic career was in 1976, when he purchased a medium-format Hasselbald camera. Mapplethorpe now moved to work primarily inside of his studio and started producing acclaimed large-scale photographs of portraits and nudes, and compared to his erotic images, very often overlooked but astonishingly beautiful, still life photographs of lilies and skulls. During this time, Mapplethorpe befriended George Dureau, a New Orleans artist whose work had a profound impact on Mapplethorpe’s style. This is also the period when he worked on various commercial projects, including pictures published by Interview Magazine and cover art for Patti Smith’s album.
During the late 1970’s Robert Mapplethorpe took a turn which shook the art world and gained him a lot of attention and infamy. As he developed strong interest in documenting BDSM scene of New York City, Mapplethorpe started creating highly controversial photographs of this underground subculture. In addition to being shocking for their content and beautiful in style, these photographs revealed an extraordinarily masterful technical talent in their execution. This series of Mapplethorpe’s photographs had hit the nerve of morally purist America of that time and sparked a passionate national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork. Nevertheless, Mapplethorpe’s career continued to flourish and in 1978, the Robert Miller Gallery became his exclusive dealer.
In 1980 Robert Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first female bodybuilding world champion. This friendship proved to be an important point in Mapplethorpe’s career. Over the next several years Mapplethorpe and Lyon collaborated on a series of figure studies and portraits. Also, this extremely productive collaboration resulted in a film and the book titled “Lady, Lisa Lyon”. During the 1980’s Mapplethorpe experimented with different techniques and formats, including dye transfer color prints, photogravures, platinum prints and large format color Polaroid photographs. His style also greatly evolved as he produced large number of stylistically composed photographs of male and female nudes, studio portraits of celebrities and fellow artists as well as the wonderfully delicate still lifes of flowers.
The year of 1986 represents another milestone in both Robert Mapplethorpe’s artistic career and his private life. During this year Mapplethorpe was very productive. He designed highly acclaimed stage sets for “Portraits in Reflection”, a dance performance by Lucinda Childs, American postmodern dancer and choreographer. He also created a series of photogravures for the publication of an extended poem in prose “A Season in Hell” written by Arthur Rimbaud, and was commissioned by curator Richard Marshall to create series of New York artists’ (sculptors, painters and photographers) photographic portraits, published in the book titled “50 New York Artists”, with an introduction written by Richard Marshall and published by Chronicle Books.
But what drew most attention to Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in 1986, was his solo exhibition “Black Males” and the book “The Black Book” that followed it. Mapplethorpe’s photography artwork of black men once again sparked a national controversy. These provocative erotic images depicting nude black males and inspired by blaxploitation genre films such as “Mandingo”, were strongly criticized as being exploitative. Focused on segments of the subject's naked bodies, Mapplethorpe’s sculptural “Black Males” series, which pursued the Platonic form, was largely phallocentric, and led to public prosecution under the charge of pornography. Today, “The Black Book” is recognized as one of the most significant contributions to the discussion of art and sexuality in the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, that same year of 1986, Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. Despite the illness, the ailing Mapplethorpe carried on working more productively and with even more passion. He started accepting increasingly challenging commissions and broadened the scope of his photographic themes and subjects. Less than a year before his death in 1989, Mapplethorpe founded the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation aimed at worldwide promotion of his work and causes he cared about, but also to provide help in raising funds and donations for medical research in the fight to tackle AIDS and HIV.
Even though everyone thought Robert Mapplethorpe was long gone as he was already dead for a couple of months, he managed to ignite one last fierce culture war. His exhibition titled “The Perfect Moment” which was scheduled to be showcased at the Washington Corocan Gallery of Art in 1989 was cancelled. The exhibit, which featured his renowned art of portraiture, floral studies and extremely graphic homosexual and BDSM photos provoked the North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms and a group of hundred Congressmen to write a protest letter to the National Endowment for the Arts because it donated money to the Philadelphia museum which previously showcased the exhibition. Mapplethorpe’s work then traveled to the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center where it continued to receive discrimination and cause trouble, as the CAC director Dennis Barrie was charged with obscenity.
Robert Mapplethorpe was an intensely romantic person with a huge appetite for life, and an extraordinary artist who had left his unique mark in the history of art and changed the photography forever. With his mesmerizing, meticulously crafted compositions and strong understanding of form and light, he had managed to create such a powerful body of an extremely provocative work that lingers still and continues to inspire artists to this day. Luckily and cleverly, just before his premature death, he established his Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation which will, apart from funding AIDS related medical research, continue the great task of promoting his art and the photography in general.
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