Biography

Robert Mapplethorpe (b. 1946, New York, USA; d. 1989, Boston, USA) was born in 1946 in Queens, New York. One of six children, he was brought up in a strict Catholic environment. (‘The way I arrange things is very Catholic’, he would later tell the BBC, ‘very symmetrical.’1) When he was 16, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he first declared a major in advertising design before transferring to graphic arts. The change of direction allowed Mapplethorpe to explore his burgeoning interest in painting and drawing, and he would go on to produce a number of mixed media works that owed as much to Francis Bacon and Joseph Cornell as they did to the religious iconography of his upbringing. In 1970, at the Chelsea Hotel, the artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley gave him his first Polaroid camera. The initial intent was to incorporate his own photographs into his collages, but he quickly warmed to the camera’s expediency and the manner in which it could render light. Between 1970 and 1975, Mapplethorpe made over 1,500 photographs with Polaroid cameras, an early sign of his prolificacy. His first solo exhibition, in 1973 at Light Gallery in New York, was titled ‘Polaroids’.

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As curator Sylvia Wolf notes: ‘The highly stylised, neoclassically inspired works that Mapplethorpe made between the late 1970s and his death, in 1989, did not emerge fully formed.’2 While Mapplethorpe’s early Polaroids are rightly appreciated as works in their own right, this period was formative. The Polaroid camera allowed him to freely experiment with certain subjects, genres and compositional devices that would come to define much his mature work and, ultimately, establish him as one of the most significant photographers of his generation. As Arthur C. Danto writes in the monograph Robert Mapplethorpe (2020): ‘What gives a certain authority to Mapplethorpe’s art is that virtually everything he ever did was there at the beginning: the self-portraits, the shots of Patti Smith, the sad pornography, the flowers.’ While undoubtedly foundational for Mapplethorpe, the Polaroid photographs were not the work of an apprentice but a precocious artist with a mature aesthetic sensibility and an established set of interests. In this regard, Danto summarises: ‘He began as he ended.’3

Mapplethorpe’s fascination with highly sexualised imagery was apparent from an early age. In 1963, he was caught stealing a magazine of gay pornography from a newsstand in Times Square; in the naked self-portraits taken in the early 1970s, we find an artist trialling the exhibitionist poses that his sitters would later adopt. But Mapplethorpe’s attraction was not solely libidinal.4 Rather, he was interested in locating aesthetic perfection within explicit images and, in doing so, liberating said images from the societal conventions that first deemed them immoral. ‘The point is not […] to stoke a sexual revolt or a desecrating process,’ writes art historian Germano Celant of Mapplethorpe’s erotica, ‘it is a question of appropriating the infinitude and vitality of all these things, of looking at images with a renovated perspective that rejects the negativity of suppression’.5

This ‘renovated perspective’ never intended to shock. ‘I don’t like that particular word, “shocking”’, Mapplethorpe once told the BBC, ‘I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.’6 Indeed, the most ‘shocking’ element of Mapplethorpe’s erotic images is the sculptural quality of their composition: highly constructed, at times verging on the architectural. ‘Photography is just, like, the perfect way to make a sculpture’, Mapplethorpe told Anne Horton in 1987.7 In nudes such as Charles Bowman / Torso (1980), Raymond (1985) and Dan S. (1980), the latter of whom is bifurcated by a vertical shadow, we discern an artist who was as concerned with the natural flow of the naked body as he was with depictions of balance and harmony, structure and geometry. ‘This is the sphere of pure form,’ writes art historian Arkady Ippolitov, ‘geometrical balance of beauty and light, male and female, night and day, real and invented.’8

Mapplethorpe’s relentless pursuit of aesthetic equilibrium – what he termed ‘perfection in form’ – is evinced by his photographs of flowers, which he interacted with in much the same way that he did the naked form. ‘My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing a cock’, he told Gerrit Henry in 1982. ‘It’s about lighting and composition. […] It’s the same vision.’9 Certainly, there is a compositional consistency to consider: Mapplethorpe’s treatment of light around stamen and petals is comparable to the way in which he overlays shadows on Lisa Lyon, Ken Moody or Patti Smith. In a series of lilies from the mid-1980s, one can discern human eroticism; the outstretched stems of Iris (1982) are structurally similar to the spread legs of Derrick Cross (1985). But Mapplethorpe’s egalitarian ‘vision’ goes beyond formal similarities alone. Both his flowers and portraits fall within the same tradition of the memento mori – they are at once reflections on the inevitability of death and celebrations of the abundant life that precedes it.

The influence of Mapplethorpe is widespread and enduring. Just as he photographed prominent figures from the worlds of art, music, fashion and film, so too have these individual sectors adopted and evolved his distinctive aesthetic. His work has been a reference point for writers including Michael Cunningham, Elif Batuman and, Hilton Als and designers such as Hedi Slimane, Ann Demeulemeester and Raf Simons. (‘The quality [of his work] is almost shocking’, Simons said of Mapplethorpe on the occasion of his 2017 collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. ‘It’s like almost every photograph is mind-blowing.’10) His cover image for Patti Smith’s Horses, shot in 1975, remains iconic. Recent exhibitions of Mapplethorpe’s work at Alison Jacques Gallery have opened up further connections between creative industries, bestowing curatorial responsibilities upon the likes of David Hockney, Juergen Teller, Scissor Sisters and Patti Smith. The fact that Mapplethorpe’s legacy has been so widely distributed is, in a way, a testament to his enduring belief that beauty and form – perhaps even ‘perfection in form’ – can be found in any walk of life.

In its beauty and sculptural artistry, Mapplethorpe’s art endures as a rebuke to staunch conservatism and a testament to the internal and external beauty of people – of friends and celebrities; of those who push against the fixed conventions of their time. It could be said that Mapplethorpe’s ambition was to liberate his models (whether flowers, figures or still lifes) from the various repressions and assumptions of their contemporaneous circumstances and allow them to exist as visual things in their own right. ‘The recourse to the nude allows the photographer to strip the people Mapplethorpe loves […] of all external elements’, writes Celant, ‘freeing them of their social fetters in order to place them on a pedestal outside of time.’11

1. Arena: Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988, dir. by Nigel Finch, BBC Films
2. Sylvia Wolf, Polaroids: Mapplethorpe (New York: Prestel, 2008), p.20
3. Arthur C Danto, Robert Mapplethorpe (London: Phaidon, 2020)
4. Speaking of his early attachment to X-rated magazines, Mapplethorpe noted: ‘It’s not a directly sexual [feeling], it’s more potent than that.’ Wolf, p.20
5. Germano Celant, ‘Mapplethorpe as Neoclassicist’, Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publishing, 2004), p.49
6. Arena: Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988
7. Anne Horton, ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: Interview January 11, 1987’, Robert Mapplethorpe 1986 (Berlin: Raab Galerie, 1987), p.12
8. Arkady Ippolitov, ‘Images and Icons’, Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition (Guggenheim Museum, New York; 2004), pp.21–22
9. Gerrit Henry, ‘Robert Mapplethorpe—Collecting Quality: An Interview’, The Print Collector’s Newsletter, 1982
10. Rebecca Voight, ‘At Pitti Uomo, Raf Simons Transforms Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photography Into Fashion’, W Magazine, June 2016
11. Celant, p.49

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Works

Flower, 1987

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Ken Moody, 1985

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Mirror, c. 1971

Mirror with wire mesh, wood frame
66 x 91.5 cm (26 x 36 1/8 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Patti Smith, 1987

Silver Gelatin Print
61 x 50.8 cm (24 x 20 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Cock, 1986

Silver Gelatin Print
61 x 50.8 cm (24 x 20 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Orchid, 1985

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Necklace, 1970-71

Mixed media
framed: 32.7 x 30.7 x 6.5 cm (12 7/8 x 12 1/8 x 2 1/2 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Veronica Vera, 1982

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Sphinx, 1988

Silver Gelatin Print
61 x 50.8 cm (24 x 20 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Necklace, 1970-71

Mixed media
framed: 23.2 x 27.7 x 6.5 cm (9 1/8 x 10 7/8 x 2 1/2 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Tomato/Knife, 1989

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Flower, 1981

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Arnold, 1976

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Lisa Lyon, 1983

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Stars, 1983

Stained wood, carpet
each star: 33 x 33 cm (13 x 13 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

Leg, 1983

Silver Gelatin Print
50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in)
Courtesy: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

  • Flower, 1987
  • Ken Moody, 1985
  • Mirror, c. 1971
  • Patti Smith, 1987
  • Cock, 1986
  • Orchid, 1985
  • Necklace, 1970-71
  • Veronica Vera, 1982
  • Sphinx, 1988
  • Necklace, 1970-71
  • Tomato/Knife, 1989
  • Flower, 1981
  • Arnold, 1976
  • Lisa Lyon, 1983
  • Stars, 1983
  • Leg, 1983

Press

Sexual Liberation in 1970s New York

Julia Hobbs and Jamie Spence, Vogue

June 2020

Playing with the Edge

Arthur C. Danto, Port

May 2020

Robert Mapplethorpe Remembered by AA Bronson

Elke Buhr, Monopol

March 2019

From Shock to Awe

Ariella Budick, Financial Times

February 2019

Robert Mapplethorpe By Those Who Knew Him

Miss Rosen, Another Man

January 2019

Robert Mapplethorpe Looks Entirely Innocent

Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post

January 2019

Why Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Remain Subversive

Jackson Arn, Artsy

January 2019

The Art of Being a Muse

Ann Binlot, Document

October 2018

Robert Mapplethorpe: From Suburbia to Subversive Gay Icon

Vincent Dowd, BBC

July 2018

The Power of the Muse

Robin Muir, Vogue

May 2018

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Wanderer’s Early Years

Tom Seymour, Wallpaper

February 2018

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter

Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson, Tate Etc.

May 2017

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Alison Jacques Gallery

Sylwia Serafinowicz, ArtForum

February 2017

Teller and Croland on Mapplethorpe

David Croland and Juergen Teller, Noon

December 2016

London’s Photography Exhibitions View the World with Radical Eyes

Louisa Buck, The Telegraph

November 2016

Laid bare: The Playful Side of Robert Mapplethorpe

William Cook, BBC

November 2016

A Glimpse of Romance in Hardcore Mapplethorpe

Alastair Sooke, The Daily Telegraph

November 2016

Teller Reveals Mapplethorpe’s Hidden Side

Sophie Bew, Wallpaper

November 2016

A Lesser-Known Side of Robert Mapplethorpe

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, Artnet

November 2016

Juergen Teller’s Surprising Take on Robert Mapplethorpe

Charlotte Jansen, Artsy

November 2016

Through Other Eyes

Jo Ellison, Financial Times

November 2016

Juergen Teller is Curating a Robert Mapplethorpe show

Ashleigh Kane, Dazed

August 2016

Juergen Teller to Curate Robert Mapplethorpe Show in London

Anny Shaw, The Art Newspaper

August 2016

Why Mapplethorpe Still Matters

Holland Cotter, The New York Times

March 2016

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, LACMA and Getty Museum

Jason Farago, The Guardian

March 2016

Who’s Afraid of Robert Mapplethorpe?

Helen Stoilas and Anny Shaw, The Art Newspaper

March 2016

When Robert Mapplethorpe Took New York

Bob Colacello, Vanity Fair

March 2016

Mapplethorpe’s Magnificent Moment

David Hershkovits, Paper

February 2016

Understanding Robert Mapplethorpe

Gareth Harris, Financial Times

February 2016

Mapplethorpe and Warhol: Gender as Disguise and Identity

Susan Hodara, The New York Times

December 2015

Mapplethorpe’s Muses

Arrabella Noortman, AnOther

January 2015

Mapplethorpe Light and Dark

Nazanin Lankarani, The New York Times

May 2014

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Grand Palais

Catherine Bennett, Aesthetica

April 2014

Mapplethorpe: A Sculptural Perspective

Mara Hoberman, The New York Times

April 2014

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Grand Palais

Natascha Wolinski, Le Quotidien de l’Art

April 2014

Paris Welcomes an Erotic Great

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

April 2014

Robert Mapplethorpe Takes over Paris, Are the French Ready?

Colline Milliard, Artnet

March 2014

Mapplethorpe & Me

Xandre Rodriguez, Dazed

March 2014

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Alison Jacques Gallery

Francesca Goodwin, Trebuchet

September 2013

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Alison Jacques Gallery

Tish Wrigley, AnOther

September 2013

David Croland Opens Up On Robert Mapplethorpe

Sarah Morrison, The Independent

September 2013

Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Over Sex

Tempe Nakiska, Dazed

August 2013

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, LACMA

Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times

November 2012

Why the Scissor Sisters Love Robert Mapplethorpe

Jake Shears, The Times

January 2011

Robert Mapplethorpe: Sexual Terrorist

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

September 2010

Celebrating Extremes

Olivia Cole, The Spectator

October 2009

Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Alison Jacques Gallery

Aesthetica

October 2009

Instant Gratification

Ariella Budick, Financial Times

May 2008

Mapplethorpe’s Secret Diary

Sylvia Wolfe, The Guardian

October 2007

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Proud Finale

Dominick Dunne, Vanity Fair

February 1989

Gary Indiana Interviews Robert Mapplethorpe

Gary Indiana, Bomb

October 1988

Exhibitions

Teller on Mapplethorpe

18 November 20161 July 2017

Books

Robert Mapplethorpe

Phaidon

2020

Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers

Phaidon

2016

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs

Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen

2016

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive

Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick

2016

Polaroids: Mapplethorpe

Sylvia Wolf

2007

Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition

Guggenheim Museum Publications

2004

Robert Mapplethorpe: Some Women

Bulfinch

1992

Robert Mapplethorpe: Flowers

Foreword by Patti Smith

1990

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Black Book

St. Martin’s Press

1986

News

Robert Mapplethorpe

in ‘American Art 1961-2001’, Palazzo Strossi, Florence

Robert Mapplethorpe & Ana Mendieta

in ‘Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography’, Barbican, London

Robert Mapplethorpe: Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York. Used by Permission

Robert Mapplethorpe

in ‘Self Evidence: Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe’, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Robert Mapplethorpe: Obiettivo Sensibile

Gallerie Nazionali Barberini Corsini, Rome

Robert Mapplethorpe, Antinous, 1987. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York. Used by Permission

Robert Mapplethorpe

in ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Robert Mapplethorpe: Choreography for an Exhibition

Museo Madre, Naples

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1975. Tate / National Galleries of Scotland. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe

in ‘Tate Artist Rooms’, The Atkinson, Southport, UK

Robert Mapplethorpe: Pictures

Serralves Museum, Porto

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1976. © Robert Mapplethorpe Estate

Robert Mapplethorpe

in ‘American Masters’, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Mapplethorpe biopic to premiere at Tribeca

22 April 2018

Robert Mapplethorpe, Phillip Prioleau, 1982 Silver Gelatin Print.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney