Robert Mapplethorpe

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Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-portrait, 1980.jpg
Self-Portrait, 1980
Born(1946-11-04)November 4, 1946
Floral Park, Queens, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 9, 1989(1989-03-09) (aged 42)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
EducationPratt Institute
Known forPhotography
Patron(s)Sam Wagstaff
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Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-portrait, 1980.jpg
Self-Portrait, 1980
Born(1946-11-04)November 4, 1946
Floral Park, Queens, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 9, 1989(1989-03-09) (aged 42)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
EducationPratt Institute
Known forPhotography
Patron(s)Sam Wagstaff

Robert Mapplethorpe (/ˈmpəlˌθɔrp/; November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, known for his sometimes controversial large-scale, highly stylized black and white photography. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images of flowers. His most controversial work is that of the underground bondage and sadomasochistic BDSM scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s of New York. The homoeroticism of this work fuelled a national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork.


Mapplethorpe was born and grew up as a Roman Catholic of English and Irish heritage in Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Floral Park, Queens, New York City. His parents were Harry and Joan Mapplethorpe, and he grew up with five brothers and sisters. He studied for a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in Graphic Arts,[1] though he dropped out in 1969 before finishing his degree.[2] Mapplethorpe lived with his close friend Patti Smith (1967–74), and she supported him by working in bookstores. They created art together; and, even after he realized he was homosexual, they maintained a close relationship.

From 1977 until 1980, Mapplethorpe was the lover of gay writer and Drummer magazine editor Jack Fritscher.[3]

Mapplethorpe took his first photographs in the late 60's or early 70's using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. During this time, he became friends with New Orleans artist George Dureau, whose work had a profound impact on Mapplethorpe, so much so that he restaged many of Dureau's early photographs. By the 1980s his subject matter focused on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe's first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s, his mentor and lifetime companion art curator Sam Wagstaff bought a top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street for Robert, where he lived and used as his shooting space.[4] He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom.


Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, 42 years old, in a Boston, Massachusetts, hospital from complications arising from AIDS. His body was cremated and his ashes were buried at St. John's Cemetery, Queens in New York, in his mother's grave, marked "Maxey".

Nearly a year before his death, the ailing Mapplethorpe helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. His vision for the Foundation was that it would be "the appropriate vehicle to protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about".[5] Since his death, the Foundation has not only functioned as his official estate and helped promote his work throughout the world, it has also raised and donated millions of dollars to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV infection.[5] Mapplethorpe's estate is represented by Xavier Hufkens, the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, the OHWOW gallery in Los Angeles, and several other galleries in partnership with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.[6][7] The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation donated the Robert Mapplethorpe Archive to the Getty Research Institute. The archive spans from 1970 – 1989.[8]


Mapplethorpe worked primarily in a studio, and almost exclusively in black and white, with the exception of some of his later work and his final exhibit "New Colors". His body of work features a wide range of subjects, but his main focus and the greater part of his work is erotic imagery. He would refer to some of his own work as pornographic,[4] with the aim of arousing the viewer, but which could also be regarded as high art.[9] His erotic art explored a wide range of sexual subjects, depicting the BDSM subculture of New York in the 1970s, portrayals of black male nudes, and classical nudes of female bodybuilders. Mapplethorpe was a participant observer for much of his erotic photography, participating in the sexual acts which he was photographing and engaging his models sexually.[9]

Other subjects included flowers, especially orchids and calla lilies, children, statues, and celebrities, which included Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading and Patti Smith. Smith was a longtime roommate of Mapplethorpe and a frequent subject in his photography, including a stark, iconic photograph that appears on the cover of Smith's first album, Horses.[10] His work often made reference to religious or classical imagery, such as a portrait of Patti Smith [11] from 1986 which recalls Albrecht Dürer's 1500 self-portrait.[12]


The Perfect Moment (1989 solo exhibit tour)[edit]

In the summer of 1989, Mapplethorpe's traveling solo exhibit brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts, as well as questions of censorship and the obscene. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had agreed to be one of the host museums for the tour. Mapplethorpe decided to show his latest series that he explored shortly before his death. Titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the show included photographs from his X Portfolio, which featured images of urophagia, BDSM and a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus.[13] The show was curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).[14][15] The hierarchy of the Corcoran and several members of the U.S. Congress were upset when the works were revealed to them, due the homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes of some of the work. Though much of his work throughout his career had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association, seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called "nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material."[16]

In June 1989, pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt became involved in the censorship issue. Nesbitt, a long-time friend of Mapplethorpe, revealed that he had a $1.5-million bequest to the museum in his will, but publicly promised that if the museum refused to host the exhibition, he would revoke the bequest. The Corcoran refused and Nesbitt bequeathed the money to the Phillips Collection instead. After the Corcoran refused the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the underwriters of the exhibition went to the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts,[17] which showed all the images in its space from July 21 to August 13, 1989, to large crowds.[18][19] In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and Dennis Barrie, were charged with obscenity. They were found not guilty by a jury.[20]

According to the ICA, "The Corcoran's decision sparked a controversial national debate: Should tax dollars support the arts? Who decides what is "obscene" or "offensive" in public exhibitions? And if art can be considered a form of free speech, is it a violation of the First Amendment to revoke federal funding on grounds of obscenity? To this day, these questions remain very much at issue."[14][21] Mapplethorpe became something of a cause célèbre for both sides of the American culture war. However, prices for many of the Mapplethorpe photographs doubled and even tripled as a consequence of all the attention. The artist's notoriety supposedly also helped the sale at Christie's auction house of Mapplethorpe's own collection of furniture, pottery, silver and works by other artists, which brought about $8 million.[22]

UCE controversy[edit]

In 1998, the University of Central England was involved in a controversy when a book by Mapplethorpe was confiscated. A final-year undergraduate student was writing a paper on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and intended to illustrate the paper with a few photographs from Mapplethorpe, a book of the photographer's work. She took the photographs to the local chemist to be developed and the chemist informed West Midlands Police because of the unusual nature of the images. The police confiscated the library book from the student and informed the university that the book would have to be destroyed. If the university agreed to the destruction, no further action would be taken.

The university Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Peter Knight, supported by the Senate, took the view that the book was a legitimate book for the university library to hold and that the action of the police was a serious infringement of academic freedom. The Vice-Chancellor was interviewed by the police, under caution, with a view to prosecution under the terms of the Obscene Publications Acts.

After the interview with the Vice-Chancellor, a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service for a determination by the Director of Public Prosecutions whether to proceed with a trial. After a delay of about six months, the affair came to an end when Dr. Knight was informed by the DPP that no action would be taken.[23]

The Black Book[edit]

The 1986 solo exhibition "Black Males" and the subsequent book "The Black Book" sparked controversy for their depiction of black men. The images, erotic depictions of black males, were widely criticized for being exploitative.[24][25][26] The work was largely phallocentric and sculptural, focusing on segments of the subject's bodies. His purported intention with these photographs and the use of black male models was the pursuit of the Platonic ideal.[4] Mapplethorpe's initial interest with the black male form was inspired by films like Mandingo, and the interrogation scene in Cruising in which an unknown black character enters the interrogation room and slaps the protagonist across the face.[27]

Criticism was the subject of a work by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991–1993). Ligon juxtaposes Mapplethorpe's 91 images of black men in the 1988 publication Black Book with critical texts and personal reactions about the work to complicate the racial undertones of the imagery.[28]


In 1992, author Paul Russell dedicated his novel Boys of Life to Mapplethorpe, as well as to Karl Keller and Pier Paolo Pasolini.[29]

In 1996, Patti Smith wrote a book The Coral Sea dedicated to Mapplethorpe.[30]

Philips released a photo disc for their CD-i video game system in the late 1990s called The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe.[31]

In September 1999, Arena Editions published Pictures, a monograph that reintroduced Mapplethorpe's sex pictures. In 2000, Pictures was seized by two South Australian plain-clothes detectives from an Adelaide bookshop in the belief that the book breached indecency and obscenity laws.[32] Police sent the book to the Canberra-based Office of Film and Literature Classification after the state Attorney-General's Department deftly decided not to get involved in the mounting publicity storm. Eventually, the OFLC board agreed unanimously that the book, imported from the United States, should remain freely available and unrestricted.[33]

In 2006, a 1987 Mapplethorpe print of Andy Warhol (a platinum print on linen with four silk panels) was auctioned for around $US 643,000,[34] making it the most expensive Mapplethorpe photograph ever sold.

In May 2007, American writer, director, and producer James Crump directed the documentary film Black White + Gray, which premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. It explores the influence Mapplethorpe, curator Sam Wagstaff, and musician/poet Patti Smith had on the 1970s art scene in New York City.[citation needed]

In September 2007, Prestel published Mapplethorpe: Polaroids, a collection of 183 of approximately 1,500 existing Mapplethorpe polaroids.[35] This book accompanies an exhibition by the Whitney Museum of American Art in May 2008.

In 2008, Robert Mapplethorpe was named online as an LGBT History Month Icon.[36]

Patti Smith's 2010 memoir Just Kids focuses on her relationship with Mapplethorpe.[37]

Selected works[edit]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Glueck, Grace. "Fallen Angel", The New York Times, June 25, 1995. Accessed October 14, 2007. "Growing up in a blue-collar precinct of Floral Park and steeped in Catholicism, Mapplethorpe developed — to his alarm — an adolescent interest in gay pornographic magazines ... So, at Pratt Institute, where his father had studied Engineering and Robert majored in Graphic Arts (but stopped short of getting a degree) ..."
  2. ^ Haggerty, George. "Gay histories and cultures"
  3. ^ Jack Fritscher, Gay San Francisco: Eyewitness Drummer, San Francisco, Palm Drive Publishing, 2008, ISBN 1890834386m p. 473, reproduced at, retrieved September 29, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c Morrisroe, Patricia. Robert Mapplethorpe: a biography. New York: Random House, 1995. pgs. 297, 126 ISBN 0-394-57650-0
  5. ^ a b Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation website
  6. ^ Duray, Dan. "Mapplethorpe Estate to OHWOW in Los Angeles". The New York Observer. Retrieved 29 January 2014. 
  7. ^ "The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation - FAQ". The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Retrieved 29 January 2014. 
  8. ^ "Robert Mapplethorpe Archive". Getty Research Institute. Retrieved 11 February 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Arthur Coleman Danto and Mapplethorpe, Robert. Mapplethorpe. New York: Random House, 1992. Print. pg 326
  10. ^ Thorgerson, Storm; Aubrey Powell (November 1999). 100 Best Album Covers: The Stories Behind the Sleeves (1st American edition ed.). Dorling Kindersley. p. 74. ISBN 0-7894-4951-X. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Robert Mapplethorpe's extraordinary vision
  14. ^ a b Imperfect Moments: Mapplethorpe and Censorship Twenty Years Later, Institute of Contemporary Art
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Mapplethorpe's Photos Now an F.C.C. Issue". The New York Times. August 17, 1990. 
  17. ^ The Sensitive Society, James F. Fitzpatrick, FCLJ Vol 47 No 2
  18. ^ Corcoran Cut From Painter's Will;Lowell Nesbitt's Mapplethorpe Protest
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ The federal government and the states have long been permitted to limit obscenity or pornography. However, the exact definition of obscenity and pornography has changed over time. (See also I know it when I see it.)
  22. ^ Grace Glueck (April 16, 1990), Publicity Is Enriching Mapplethorpe Estate The New York Times.
  23. ^ UCE pages on the Mapplethorpe controversy at the Wayback Machine (archived November 12, 2002)
  24. ^ Imaging Sadomasochism: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography
  25. ^ Mapplethorpe, Robert (1946-1989)
  26. ^ Kobena Mercer "Looking for Trouble" Transition , No. 51 (1991), pp. 184-197
  27. ^ Fritscher, Jack. Mapplethorpe: assault with a deadly camera : a pop culture memoir, an outlaw reminiscence. Mamaroneck, NY: Hastings House, 1994. Print.
  28. ^ Audio Guide Stop For Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book, 1991-1993, Whitney Museum of American Art
  29. ^ Russell, Paul (1991). Boys of Life. New York, NY: Dutton. p. iii. ISBN 978-0525933274. 
  30. ^ Smith, Patti (1996). The Coral Sea. New York, NY: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393039080. 
  31. ^ "The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe (CD-i) James & Mike Mondays". Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  32. ^ "Extract from: HANSARD, S.A. LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL, Wednesday 14 March 2001". Retrieved 5 October 2013. 
  33. ^ "Pictures (book), Australian Classification,". Retrieved 5 October 2013. 
  34. ^ Robert Mapplethorpe on the Christie's website
  35. ^ Wolf, Sylvia (2007). Robert Mapplethorpe: Polaroids. Munich: Prestel. ISBN 3791338358. 
  36. ^ LGBT History Month
  37. ^ Carson, Tom (2010-01-29), "The Night Belongs to Us", New York Times, retrieved 2010-02-10 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]