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10 things to know about Robert Mapplethorpe

The controversial photographer who helped to invent the legend of 1970s New York counterculture — and fuelled a national debate on the boundaries of art

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  • Before photography, there was painting and sculpture

Mapplethorpe was a suburban New Yorker, born in Floral Park, Queens, in 1946. He went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1963, studying painting and sculpture. His inspirations were broad and included Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, both of whose influence is palpable in his early assemblages. Originally, these were made using found objects and materials from sources as diverse as religious postcards (Mapplethorpe had grown up a Catholic) and pornographic magazines. 

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  • His introduction to photography was gradual

First, he obtained a Polaroid camera in 1970, and began including his own photographs in the assemblages — he said ‘it was more honest’. He then met two influential art historians: John McKendry, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who bought Mapplethorpe his first Hasselblad medium-format camera; and Sam Wagstaff, a curator and collector who became his life partner and mentor, and who hugely influenced his career. Photography was Mapplethorpe’s chief medium from 1973 onwards.

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  • Patti Smith was his soulmate

As a struggling student, Mapplethorpe met a budding poet, Patti Smith, in a New York bookstore in 1967. ‘With few words he became my friend, my compeer, my beloved adventure,’ Smith has written. The pair were lovers and offered moral support for each other as they struggled to make their art amid impecuniousness in the city.

Together, they helped to invent the legend of 1970s New York — they lived for a time in the elegantly wasted Chelsea Hotel, and frequented CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. Smith was Mapplethorpe’s muse throughout — the only person he photographed more than her was himself. Among his many iconic images of Patti Smith is the cover of Horses, the album that propelled her to rock stardom.

Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and book of poems, The Coral Sea, document their love for each other, even if the nature of that love changed after Mapplethorpe came to terms with his homosexuality.

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  • He depicted the New York BDSM scene

Mapplethorpe was a part of the bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) scene in New York from the 1970s, and captured it intimately. Smith argued that he ‘was not a voyeur. He always said that he had to be authentically involved with the work that came out of his S&M pursuit.’ 

He met his subjects in places like the members-only gay club, The Mine Shaft, and strove to convey the participants’ pride in their sexual lives. ‘It was giving pleasure to one another. It was not about hurting,’ he told Vanity Fair. The images ranged from portraits of couples in bondage to explicit sadomasochistic sexual practices and his iconic Self Portrait with Whip  (1978), always captured with Mapplethorpe’s exquisite sense of tone and light.

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  • He also photographed nude women

If Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Smith, crouched naked in his studio in Bond Street in 1976, is perhaps his greatest female nude, his sustained 1980s project to capture Lisa Lyon, a bodybuilding champion, produced some equally arresting images. He was attracted by the dualities and ambiguities of a muscle-bound woman. ‘When I first saw her undraped,’ he said, ‘it was hard to believe that this fine girl should have this form.’ 

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  • Mapplethorpe photographed flowers throughout his career

Dimitri Levas, Mapplethorpe’s former assistant, wrote that the artist ‘taught himself about light and exposure by photographing flowers’. They were to become a permanent fixture in his work.

Indeed, Mapplethorpe made his first significant impact on the New York art world in 1977 with a show of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery. These photographs were exhibited alongside nudes and sadomasochistic works at The Kitchen.

While Georgia O’Keeffe, another great depicter of flowers, was irritated by erotic readings of her paintings, Mapplethorpe embraced the sexuality of flora. And as his photographic career began with flowers, so it ended: just before his death from complications related to AIDS in 1989, Mapplethorpe sent his friends a photograph of a bunch of tulips curving out of a black vase against a grey background.

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  • He followed Jasper Johns by making the American flag into a work of art

Early in his career, Mapplethorpe had been influenced by the proto-Pop collage aesthetic of Jasper Johns, who more than anyone had turned the American flag into a work of art. Mapplethorpe took on this quintessential Pop symbol in two photographs: the first, made in 1977, was a tattered, threadbare stars-and-stripes which some read as a critique of the state of the nation.

His 1987 image, however, was far more heroic, shot from behind, with a halo of sun glowing around its lower right corner and a hint of the American tradition of sublime landscape in the mountains and clouds beneath an otherwise clear, open sky. The apparent optimism of the image is arguably tempered by the knowledge that Mapplethorpe had been diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and lost his partner Sam Wagstaff to complications from AIDS at the start of the year in which the flag was shot. Might it, in fact, be a kind of memorial?

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  • His work explored black and white in its broadest sense

Although he did venture into colour, the vast majority of Mapplethorpe’s photography is in black and white. His attraction to monochrome imagery is nowhere more evident that in his depiction of black men. As Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe’s biographer, has written, he felt ‘he could extract a greater richness from the colour of their skin’ than was possible with white models.

He also equated black skin with classical statuary, feeling that in black and white prints it possessed the quality of bronze. Often, Mapplethorpe would deliberately contrast black skin with white objects, or even, in the case of his double portrait of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman (1984), white skin.

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  • He reinvented classicism

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), Clifton, 1981. Signed by Michael Ward Stout, executor, in ink and dated in pencil in photographers estate copyright credit stamp and titled, dated and numbered 810 in pencil (flush mount, verso), image 15 x 15 in (38 x 38 cm), sheetflush mount 20 x 16 in (50.8 x 40.7 cm). This lot was offered in Photographs on 5 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), Clifton, 1981. Signed by Michael Ward Stout, executor, in ink and dated in pencil in photographer's estate copyright credit stamp and titled, dated and numbered '8/10' in pencil (flush mount, verso), image: 15 x 15 in (38 x 38 cm), sheet/flush mount: 20 x 16 in (50.8 x 40.7 cm). This lot was offered in Photographs on 5 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Whatever his subject matter, Mapplethorpe created pictures of acute precision, order and balance — hallmarks of classicism and neo-classicism. He had a profound interest in sculpture, and made several photographs of classical works, the earliest in Polaroids made when he travelled to Europe with John McKendry in 1970.

He went on to collect sculpture, including a bronze reproduction of Frederic, Lord Leighton’s The Sluggard, which he captured in a 1988 diptych, the sculpture’s muscular form echoing his nude portraits of living people. 

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  • The BDSM pictures led to much controversy

In 1988 a retrospective, The Perfect Moment, began a five-venue tour across the United States. From Philadelphia it travelled to Chicago, where it became a posthumous exhibition after Mapplethorpe’s death in March 1989.

A ‘culture war’ was brewing at the time between conservative politicians and the artistic community over public funding for exhibitions including challenging material. Remarkably, the Corcoran Museum in Washington cancelled The Perfect Moment two weeks before the opening. Before the show arrived in Cincinnati, a conservative group tried to force the Contemporary Arts Center to cancel its version of the show; when it went ahead, police invaded the exhibition under obscenity charges brought against the museum. The museum was acquitted, but the culture wars rumbled on.