Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in Queens, New York to Joan and Harry Mapplethorpe. He was the third of six children and was brought up in a strict Catholic environment. While studying in high school he showed skills as a draftsman.
At the age of sixteen in 1963, Mapplethorpe enrolled at the Pratt Institute in nearby Brooklyn, where he studied drawing, painting, and sculpture. Influenced by a range of artists including assemblage artist Joseph Cornell and dada artist Marcel Duchamp, he also experimented with various materials in mixed-media collages, including images cut from books and magazines. In 1970 he and Patti Smith, whom he had met three years earlier, moved into the Chelsea Hotel. He acquired a Polaroid camera that same year and began producing his own photographs to incorporate into the collages.
In the late 70s, Mapplethorpe grew increasingly interested in documenting the New York S&M scene. The resulting photographs are shocking for their content and remarkable for their technical and formal mastery. Mapplethorpe told ARTnews in late 1988, ‘I don’t like that particular word “shocking.” I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before … I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.’ Meanwhile his career continued to flourish. 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.
Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion, in 1980. Over the next several years they collaborated on a series of portraits and figure studies, a film, and the book, Lady, Lisa Lyon. Throughout the 80s, Mapplethorpe produced a bevy of images that simultaneously challenge and adhere to classical aesthetic standards: stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still-lifes, and studio portraits of artists and celebrities, to name a few of his preferred genres. He introduced and refined different techniques and formats.
In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS. Despite his illness, he accelerated his creative efforts, broadened the scope of his photographic inquiry, and accepted increasingly challenging commissions. The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective in 1988, one year before his death in 1989.
His vast, provocative, and powerful body of work has established him as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Today Mapplethorpe is represented by galleries in North and South America and Europe and his work can be found in the collections of major museums around the world. Beyond the art historical and social significance of his work, his legacy lives on through the work of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. He established the Foundation in 1988 to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had a unique relationship: they were friends, lovers, artistic collaborators and soul mates. Mapplethorpe and Smith met in 1967 and quickly become lovers; they would live with one another for the next few years. The years they spent together proved to be formative to their artistic development; while Mapplethorpe emerged in the mid-1970s as a successful artist, Smith would achieve simultaneous success as a poet and musician, associated with the punk music genre.
Smith was photographed multiple times by Mapplethorpe and would become one of his most frequent sitters. Mapplethorpe photographed Smith for the cover of both Witt, her 1973 volume of poetry, and her album Horses in 1975. Horses would go on to achieve iconic status in popular music and define Smith’s androgynous and uncompromising style – a photograph from the same session is in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, Patti Smith 1975. Photographed here with her arms and lips open, one hand suggestively holds a tie which is also around her neck while she leans against a wall. Mapplethorpe photographs her as Smith describes it, ‘at her most confident’. Her pose is at once vulnerable and confrontational.
By the late 1970s Smith had achieved commercial and critical success. Mapplethorpe would photograph Smith again for her fourth album, Waves in 1979, in the same apartment used for the Horses shoot. This would be Smith's last album prior to a nine-year-long hiatus from her recording career. Smith, having met and fallen in love with the American musician Fred 'Sonic' Smith, was ready to focus on family life and Waves reflected a new sense of calm, charm and sincerity. Mapplethorpe captures this in the image Patti Smith 1979 for the album's cover. Smith, with a piercing stare, is somewhat subdued; the light fabric of her dress, the tree that obscures part of the body and the doves that rest on either hand give the image a serene, almost arcadian feel.
Patti Smith returned to recording with the album Dream of Life in 1988, again Mapplethorpe would photograph her for the cover. Smith would also contribute to one of Mapplethorpe’s final projects, Flowers, a book of his flower studies, with a foreword which was released several months after his death.
Mapplethorpe’s subjects also included individuals from the subcultures of the time such as punks and those engaged in the S&M scene. In works such as Smutty 1980 the subject's nickname, tattoos, studded wristband and knowing look suggest that there is a darker side to this androgynous-looking young man. The placement of the arms and the contrapposto of the body and head are features common in Mannerist art, an area of art history in which Mapplethorpe had a particular interest.
Portraiture was one of the main strands of Mapplethorpe’s work and during his lifetime, he published books which concentrated on portraiture, including Lady: Lisa Lyon (1983), Certain People: A Book of Portraits (1985), 50 New York Artists (1986), in collaboration with Richard Marshall, and Some Women (1989). His subjects included those from wide-ranging social and cultural contexts: from royalty and aristocracy to rent boys, but a large proportion of his portraits from the 1980s were of prominent figures, many in the arts.
His portraits can be seen as a reflection of New York’s ‘cultural scene’ throughout the 1980s and each image is characterised by Mapplethorpe’s style – his relentless pursuit of beauty where imperfections are absent. The works appear not to define the persona of each sitter but confirm Mapplethorpe’s vision, which allows depictions of the sitters that mirror their most perfect selves. The critic and curator Janet Kardon describes Mapplethorpe’s portraiture subjects as ‘avatars for his vision’.
In 1984 Mapplethorpe photographed Grace Jones, the Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, model and actress, known for her androgynous looks and her provocative behaviour. Jones was a prominent figure in the New York art and social scene in the 1980s, a successful recording artist, film actress and sometimes muse of the artist Andy Warhol (see Warhol, Grace Jones 1976-86).
In Mapplethorpe’s Grace Jones 1985, Jones is decorated in body paint by the artist Keith Haring for her performance at Paradise Garage, an alternative dance club in New York City. Keith Haring was introduced to Grace Jones by Andy Warhol and Warhol arranged for Mapplethorpe to photograph Jones prior to the performance. Although the image could be seen as a multiple collaboration it is classic Mapplethorpe; the sitter is portrayed frontally, occupying the parameters of the lens in complete symmetry.
Jones has a perfectly sculpted body and often took on masculinised personas in her performances, challenging representations of the female body. She occupies both the mainstream and avant-garde position within society and transformed her body into a site of power. A second photograph from this session was featured in Mapplethorpe’s book Certain People: A Book of Portraits.
Robert Mapplethorpe stated that he sought ‘perfection in form’ in all his subjects, from nudes and portraits to flowers and architecture. This perfection is exemplified by his celebrated studies of the human figure; sitters included black models, dancers and body-builders, all with muscular and well-defined bodies. These powerful bodies are reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture and governed by rules of symmetry and geometry.
In 1980 Robert Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Body Building Champion. They would collaborate several times over the next few years creating various portraits and figure studies including both full and fragmented body images. This series of collaborations, which saw Lyon take on multiple guises and ‘types’ of women, would result in the book Lady: Lisa Lyon (1983).
During the same period as his collaboration with Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe was also photographing the male figure. Mapplethorpe’s male figures were often athletic black men because, as his biographer Patricia Morrisroe would state, ‘he could extract a greater richness from the colour of their skin’. He would produce a book exclusively of photographs of black men, Black Book (1986). The figure studies included images of fragmented bodies such as a torso, an extended arm, buttocks and thighs. Mapplethorpe once stated ‘I zero in on the body part that I consider the most perfect part in that particular model’.
Mapplethorpe’s black sitters included the athlete and model Ken Moody and the dancer Derrick Cross – they would be photographed by him multiple times. In the work Derrick Cross 1983 the body’s core fills the frame. The arch of the body suggests movement while the draped fabric around the waist enhances the sense of performance and sculpture. The motion of the torso embellishes the muscle definition, emphasising the physicality and sense of strength.
Mapplethorpe’s late flower studies can be disconcertingly ambiguous: at once, an oblique reference to sexuality and sexual organs yet, at the same time, sensitive paeans to a world of fragile beauty.
While images of the body are associated with ideals of beauty, the portrait is often associated with identity and individuality. The self portrait is perhaps the most complex aspect of the genre because the artist and the sitter are one and the same person, so that the image offers the allure of a private diary. Historically the self portrait is linked to artistic identity, experimentation with techniques and autobiography. Mapplethorpe’s self portraits contain all of these elements: his early polaroids are his first experiments with the self portrait and his exploration of photography; his works from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s survey different personas and ideas of identity, while his late self portraits are more autobiographical and concerned with questions of existence.
The ARTIST ROOMS collection contains a number of Mapplethorpe self portraits in which he takes on different personas, including a knife-wielding hoodlum, a revolutionary and ultimate bad-boy. He also took on the persona of devil, sexual-provocateur and transvestite amongst others. These personas can all be considered different facets of his identity. Susan Sontag, writing in the introduction to Mapplethorpe's publication Certain People: A Book of Portraits (1985), quotes the artist as saying that his self portraits express the part of him that is most self-confident.
For the cover image for his Certain People publication Mapplethorpe chose the work Self-Portrait 1980. Here Mapplethorpe portrays himself as the archetypal bad boy, with black leather jacket, dark shirt, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, cool gaze and coiffed 1950s-style hair. The image is reminiscent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones (1953). Typical of many of his portraits, the pose is wholly frontal and composed so that his mouth lies at the very centre of the photograph.
In 1986 Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS, the syndrome caused by HIV. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was one of the most significant international events of the 1980s and had affected the lives of many in Mapplethorpe’s immediate circle. At the time, most of those diagnosed with the disease did not survive more than two years. Mapplethorpe’s self portraiture towards the end of his life reflected his diminishing health, his search for catharsis and his sense of his own mortality.
In Self-Portrait 1988 Mapplethorpe is seated facing straight ahead, as if he were looking death in the face – as if he were confronting death. The skull-headed cane that he holds in his right hand reinforces this reading. Mapplethorpe is wearing black, so that his head floats free, disembodied, surrounded by darkness. Using a shallow depth of field, Mapplethorpe photographs his head very slightly out of focus perhaps to suggest his gradual fading away. Robert Mapplethorpe, until the very end of his life, believed that he could beat AIDS.
Beyond ideals of the human body, characteristic of Mapplethorpe’s figurative work and ancient Greek sculpture, balance and unity were key to Mapplethorpe’s compositions. In his portrait / partial body study Ken Moody 1983, the sitter is typically photographed frontally in perfect symmetry with his mouth and nose at the very centre of the image; his shoulders, which fill the bottom of the frame, and the top of his smooth head form a triangular shape, which was favoured in many of Mapplethorpe’s sculptures and photographs.
Typical of Mapplethorpe’s work, Ken Moody, a model he worked with numerous times, is photographed in his studio with photographic backdrop material in the background to allow absolute focus on the figure in the foreground. The lighting is arranged to enhance the sitter’s symmetrical features, muscle definition and bone-structure.
The sitter’s eyes are closed suggesting that this work is more closely related to Mapplethorpe’s body studies rather than one of his portraits.
Mapplethorpe’s photograph Patti Smith 1976, like many of his photographs of Smith, is taken outside the studio. Captured while Smith temporarily lived in Mapplethorpe’s loft apartment, the photograph relies on natural light. Looking pensive and somewhat insecure, her body, cradled in a foetal position, Smith holds onto a radiator pipe running along the wall. The geometries of Smith’s body unify the geometries of the room and enhance perspective. The main axies are horizontal and vertical, but running in counterpoint to these are the diagonals of the radiator pipes beneath the windows and of Smith’s arms and legs.
Despite lacking a studio, lighting and styling equipment, the image is quintessentially Mapplethorpe.
Robert Mapplethorpe became famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his male nudes and sexually explicit imagery. These images tested the boundaries of creative freedom and his work therefore holds a significant place in the history of artistic struggle to depict the world as it is with honesty and truth.
His work, including photographs of people engaged in sexual acts, polarised some people and prompted questions about censorship and freedom of expression. His work would widely be referred to as part of the so-called culture wars in the early 1990s, along with that of other prominent figures in art and popular culture such as the film director Martin Scorsese, visual artist Andres Serrano and pop star Madonna. Noticeably, all were raised Catholic and questioned the church through their art. Religious symbolism was evident throughout Mapplethorpe’s career.
In Self Portrait 1983 Mapplethorpe shows himself in battle dress (leather jacket), posing as a revolutionary figure, rifle in hand, in front of his sculpture Black Star 1983, which consists of a black-painted frame in the shape of a pentagram. This particular pentagram is inverted (one point facing down) and could therefore be interpreted as a symbol of the Devil. Mapplethorpe, brought up a devout Catholic, later liked to identify with the Devil because of his own ‘sinful’ behaviour. Thus, he becomes a rebel soldier fighting for a cause.
Mapplethorpe once said that ‘beauty and the Devil are the same thing’, and his fascination with the devil was evident in his work. He would also make reference to Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Peter. In the work Lisa Lyon 1982 he uses his sitter to create an effigy of Christ. The cross is a symbol which would appear in Mapplethorpe’s work throughout his career, and many of his sculptures were in the shape of a cross. He once stated ‘I like the form of a cross, I like its proportions. I arrange things in a Catholic way’.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Mapplethorpe: 1970-1983, London 1983.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Chatwin, Lady, Lisa Lyon, New York 1983.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Susan Sontag, Certain People: A Book of Portraits, Pasadena 1985.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Ntozake Shange, Black Book, New York 1986.
Richard Marshall and Robert Mapplethorpe, 50 New York Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working In New York, San Francisco 1986.
Janet Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, Philadelphia 1988.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Joan Didion, Some Women, Boston 1989.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Flowers, Boston 1990.
Richard Marshall, Mapplethorpe’s Vision, New York 1990.
Germano Celant, Mapplethorpe, Italy 1992.
Keith Hartley, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edinburgh 2006.
Arthur C. Danto, Robert Mapplethorpe, London 2007.
Sylvia Woolf, Polaroids, Munich and New York 2007.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Perfection in Form, London 2009.