Anne Darling Photography

Robert Mapplethorpe
(1913-1954, American)

Robert Mapplethorpe pictures are, for many, synonymous with art at its most extreme. But Mapplethorpe did not, as a young man, devote himself to becoming a photographer. It was apparently far from his mind: one of the happy accidents that sometimes change the art world.

While tearing up pictures to make assemblages in the early 1970's, he decided against using found objects as art, choosing instead to create one-of-a-kind collages by making his own photographs.

This was the era of the popular Polaroid camera. It was new technology still, and every picture taken with it resulted in a unique print - no negatives thus no reproductions. The sheer immediacy of the print and how easy it was to make would surely have appealed to Robert Mapplethorpe, who had never trained in photography and certainly knew nothing about the darkroom and negatives at this point. Once discovered, however, the Polaroid became indispensable to his work and development as an artist.

Robert Mapplethorpe Pictures

Mapplethorpe was born in 1946, the middle son of nine siblings, which meant he had neither first-born expectations weighing upon him nor last born sheltering. He once remarked that pleasing his father was the last thing on his mind.

He was a precocious young man, to say the least. He was raised as a Catholic on Long Island, and attended Catholic schools. He would have attended Mass when it was all ritual, and chanted in Latin: the incense burners; the altars and stained glass windows of the church; and the Mannerist crucifixion statue that was ubiquitous during those days, with a scanty cloth alone to cover the icon of torture and death. The secrecy and reciting of sins in the confessional box, along with penance for his thoughts, would have rendered so much of life ripe for confession.

robert mapplethorpe book cover black and white photography Right: Cover of "Mapplethorpe" - black & white photos

Death and the flesh, and ostentatious decoration replete with images of suffering saints are powerful images to burn into the mind of a child. The Church at that time wove its practices and ornamentation into a matrix of complicated core beliefs that surrounded one at least every Sunday. Death, suffering, and the flesh conspired together in Church imagery; human desire was sinful, from certain practices even within marriage to eating meat on Friday; and it was a sin to not have sins to take to confession, for not having attended confession was sacrilege.

Robert Mapplethorpe and his penchant for what is now called transgressive art surprise not in the least if one considers the factors of his Catholic upbringing and that the 1970's were a time when art seemed at a standstill. Minimalism had come and gone; Conceptual Art was stale; and Pop art had not appealed to Mapplethorpe, in any case. Where would, or could, art go next?

That among his first experiments with the Polaroid in 1971 were naked pictures of himself - three over-lapping prints assembled and presented as an object of art - makes perfect sense. By this time, Mapplethorpe was a gay, lapsed Catholic whose intellect, his biographers tell us, was replete with great breadth and depth of art history. He wanted to "see what he had never seen before." This would take the shape of a new formalism pushing the limits of the photographic medium with explicitly gay themes that had yet to be legitimized by acceptance in the art world.

Before the end of his career, Senator Jesse Helms (now himself dead) would foment a war for the cultural soul of the country by making Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano perpetrators of crime committed for art's sake. He held hearings, was indeed obsessed, with the "outing" of Mapplethorpe's themes and Serrano's mixed media crucifix in bodily fluid. The National Endowment for the Arts oversaw the cancellation of Mapplethorpe's show at the Corcoran in Washington, DC. Unprecedented numbers of art lovers passed through the exhibition, although many were drawn to the exhibition by its politicization.

But before the political scandal (beginning in 1989) involving Robert Mapplethorpe's work, the artist would evolve from his first experimentation with the Polaroid camera, making pictures of himself and of his friends. Mapplethorpe insisted that he was not a photographer, but that he made "objects" that he could touch and hold.

Robert Mapplethorpe Quotes

  • I am selfish, but that's an attribute that all artists possess.
  • When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God.
  • Too many photographers use the camera to avoid participating in things. They become professional observers.

During the early to mid-1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe pictures were experiments with art objects that included particular framing of his photographs. Some frames were self-referential, such as the one shaped like a Polaroid print just out of the camera. He saw beauty in the wood he used for some, creating incongruity in the scale of the wooden frame and dwarfing his photograph. He took pictures of the back of wooden frames and framed them. His works also grew in scale.

These were pivotal years for Robert Mapplethorpe. It was in the 1970's that he lived with his best friend and muse, the punk rocker Patti Smith. She is featured in many of the early shots, in which Mapplethorpe was beginning to sense the importance of natural lighting. And in 1972, Mapplethorpe met the one man with whom he would spend most of his life, Yale-educated Sam Wagstaff who was 25 years the senior of Robert, a museum curator and art patron.

Mapplethorpe began to use a Hasselblad as well as a large format press camera given to him by Wagstaff, and to experiment with new forms in his pictures. Having encyclopedic knowledge of art history, he now studied and mastered photography. This awareness of art history is evident in the photograph below (pending permission to use it - sorry!) which is a reference, both visually and in the title, to a painting by El Greco of Saint Sebastian.

The exaggeratedly long lines, so reminiscent of El Greco's San Sebastian, portray the body and its extremities; a religious subject is rendered near death and suffering; and the contrapposto attitude of the body are all hallmarks of the Mannerist style. Robert Mapplethorpe has created here a striking photograph and artifact referencing art history, contemporary culture, and personal statement.

During the 1970's, Robert Mapplethorpe pictures included art diptychs in which one panel was used in opposition to another, creating tension in color and scale. In the triptychs he often used one panel for something other than a photograph. The most challenging and engaging of these for the viewer contains a mirror in the center panel. The viewer then implicates himself in the art - Robert Mapplethorpe pictures challenged his viewers as he challenged himself.

robert mapplethorpe book perfection in form

By the 1980's, when art had become a true commodity, Mapplethorpe began to draw upon sculptural form and to concentrate on classical nudes. The photographs are clean, elegant, and perfectly controlled and balanced, often mimicking statuary. He photographed muscular or effeminate body types while taking primarily black men as his subjects.

Whilst revisiting classic sculpture in his pictures, Mapplethorpe used many photographic techniques from the old Polaroid to dye transfer color prints. His unique addition to a whole battery of photographic methods was to use linen as canvas for the photograph, thereby creating a kind of hybrid picture which melds painting and photography.

In 1989, Mapplethorpe died from complications stemming from AIDS. His partner Sam Wagstaff shortly followed. Although he had no children, critics have considered Catherine Opie to be Mapplethorpe's heir-apparent. Opie created a tribute to him by juxtaposing his self-portraits from 1979 and 1989, giving expression to the physical decline and artistic evolution of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Recommended Reading

robert mapplethorpe biography Mapplethorpe: A Biography, was written with Robert Mapplethorpe's full endorsement and encouragement.

In it, Patricia Morrisroe interviews more than 300 friends, lovers, family members and critics to form this definitive biography of America's most censored and celebrated photographer.

Booklist Review

How did a middle-class Catholic boy from Queens become one of the world's most controversial artists? Morrisroe, who met Mapplethorpe at the pinnacle of his fame and the beginning of his rapid descent toward death from AIDS, provides as cogent an explanation as possible in an excellent biography notable for its dramatic structure and candor.

Morrisroe tracks Mapplethorpe's brief and excessive life from his awkward boyhood, through his miasmic college and ROTC years, to his abrupt sexual and artistic liberation when he discovered drugs and gay S & M bars, habits he overindulged in right up to his death at age 43.

Mapplethorpe's story is tied inextricably to the life story of his closest friend, sometime lover, and most important muse, Patti Smith, who Morrisroe also portrays with skill and ardor.

Morrisroe does a superb job of conjuring the New York art and club scene during the 1970s and 1980s and of tracing the evolution of Mapplethorpe's troubling art. A photographer perversely proud of his lack of technical knowledge, Mapplethorpe had a brilliant but cold eye and ruthlessly objectified his sex partners and models. The truth is, Mapplethorpe was fixated on transgression, sadism, evil, and death.

Incapable of love, he used and abused people, including himself. But these harsh truths don't detract from his impact as an artist or diminish the raw power of his images. There is a dark side to every aspect of life, even beauty.

amazon customer rating  Amazon customer rating.





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