Happy Birthday, Robert Mapplethorpe!

November 4, 2019

There are few photographers who have sparked national debate around artistic freedom and eroticism as profoundly as Robert Mapplethorpe. He was concerned with Classical aspects of beauty, whether in his nudes, floral still lifes, or self-portraits—light, shadow, composition, and form were central to all his work. For him, photography was a means to an end in a search for original self-expression.

I'm looking for perfections in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers. It's not different from one subject to the next. I am trying to capture what could be sculpture.

Mapplethorpe lived with Patty Smith in a room of New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1969, but in less than ten years he had completed X Portfolio, a collection of gay BDSM-themed portraits that would soon make him the most controversial photographer in America.

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS on 9 March 1989 at the age of 42. Today, he would have been 73. To honor his birthday, we have gathered ten of his iconic works which you can own right now!

Featured image: Robert Mapplethorpe - Aira (detail), 1979. All images courtesy of Mai 36 Gallery.

Melody Danielson, 1987

Robert Mapplethorpe is best known for his black-and-white portraits of iconic figures in the art and music world as well as powerful and moving self-portraits. These works both challenge us and present us with images of classical beauty.

This gelatine silver print features Melody Danielson, a fashion designer and Mapplethorpe's friend.

See more info about the work here.


Feathers and Eggs, 1985

Mapplethorpe has pushed the boundaries of photography in both his subject choice and technique. His style is present regardless of subject matter as he ceaselessly strove for what he called "perfection of form." By the 1980s, his focus was predominantly in the studio, shooting portraits, still lifes and nudes.

Titled Feathers and Eggs, this still life from 1985 demonstrates the artist's mastery of composition and lighting.

See more info about the work here.

Jack Walls, 1982

Jack Walls was Mapplethorpe's lover and muse, sitting for photographs and co-mingling with his downtown New York crowd. After moving to New York from Chicago, Walls met Mapplethorpe and the two quickly moved in together. As Walls explained, Mapplethorpe observed "the dark landscape of the fringe homosexuals activity," "documenting it all, with the eye of a poet." 


See more info about the work here.

Sonia and Tracy, 1988

Although Mapplethorpe is best known for male nudes, he also made a significant amount of female ones. Many women would sit for Mapplethorpe — a subject that would not be his most infamous but arguably the most enduring of his career. His female subjects were shown with a certain power and elegance, while the connection and trust between the artist and his models are evident. Sonia and Tracy is a mechanical duotone print from a Monograph beautifully printed in 1989 in the US on Superfine Mohawk Paper.


See more info about the work here.

Lisa Lyon, 1980

Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion, was a recurring subject in Mapplethorpe's work. After meeting the photographer in 1980, she collaborated with him on figure and portrait studies, a film, and a book, Lady, Lisa Lyon. In this 1980 photograph, Lisa Lyon exhibits both classical beauty and strength.


See more info about the work here.

RM Glass Collection, 1984

Shooting the RM Glass Collection in 1984, one of his still-life subjects, Mapplethorpe demonstrated his mastery of light and shadow.

See more info about the work here.

Orchids, 1983

In the work Orchids from 1983, botany and erotica collide. As many critics have pointed out, Mapplethorpe makes it quite clear that flowers are the sexual organs of plants. This work proves his understanding of form and light, creating meticulous compositions of truly beautiful images that revel in the sensual quality of nature.

See more info about the work here.

Alistair Butler / Torso, 1980

In Alistair Butler / Torso, we see a cropped profile view of black male torso with his stomach sucked inward. As he said, he sought "perfection in form" in all his subjects, and this perfection can be clearly seen in his studies of the human figure. These powerful bodies remind us of classical Greek sculpture, following the rules of symmetry and geometry that classical sculptors used.

See more info about the work here.

Aira, 1979

Aira from 1979 is an example of Mapplethorpe's extensive fashion collaborations, ranging from his work with French and Italian Vogue, through to his friendships with many of the key members of the fashion set. It is evident how style and form influenced his work both in the fashion world and beyond.

See more info about the work here.

Raymond, 1984

This is another of Mapplethorpe's nudes, reflecting his search for the perfect form. The tension between eroticism and cold perfection was central to the power of his photographs. Today, these nudes often evoke still lifes, having a cold, glossy perfection.

See more info about the work here.

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