Biography of Robert Mapplethorpe
Childhood and Education
Born in 1946, Robert Mapplethorpe was the third of six children. His father, Harry, worked as an electrical engineer while his mother, Joan, stayed at home raising their six children. Mapplethorpe grew up in a conservative Catholic household nestled in the quiet Queen's suburb of Floral Park. Mapplethorpe described his hometown as too safe to stay, "I come from suburban America. It was a very safe environment, and it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave." The Mapplethorpe family attended Mass every Sunday and Robert served as an altar boy and occasionally made art for their family priest. His father, an amateur photographer himself, had a dark room in his basement. However, Mapplethorpe did not show an early interest in photography.
Mapplethorpe finished high school in just two years. He enrolled at the Pratt Institute near Brooklyn, New York at the young age of 16. Despite his father's disapproval to study art, he started school majoring in advertising design. Like many young students, college was a time for personal exploration and a newly found independence from his religious upbringing. He continued his involvement in masculine activities such as the ROTC and The National Society of Pershing Rifles, but began to question his sexual identity through gay pornography magazines - of which he would save cut-outs, many of these cut-outs showed up in his early artwork. He also began experimenting with psychedelic drugs. Mapplethorpe and his friends would often create collages and other assigned art projects while on LSD. He enjoyed the spontaneity of collages and assemblages and despised his photography courses. On a few occasions, instead of creating original work, he would take photographs from his father's darkroom to complete his photography assignments.
In 1966, Mapplethorpe switched his major from advertising design to graphic design. The new discipline gave Mapplethorpe a better chance at expressing his outgoing and unique personality. Graphic design opened his eyes to other mediums and he began making necklaces, drawings, jewellery, and assemblages. Mapplethorpe left Pratt in 1969, just one course shy of receiving his B.F.A.
Around that time, he met his only female lover and lifelong friend, Patti Smith. They lived together in Brooklyn, and later at the Chelsea Hotel where they would attempt to trade artworks for rent. They often experimented with drugs and helped one another develop their artistic styles. Their relationship was intense and often tumultuous, but they remained close friends. Mapplethorpe often photographed Smith, and stated that, "Patti was an unbelievable subject, there were so many sides to her, so many aspects that changed my world vision." Smith matched Mapplethorpe's ambition and drive to become a famous artist in New York during the early 1970s, and went on to become one of the most revered female musicians.
One of the main artistic figures that influenced and informed Mapplethorpe's early artistic style and personal goals was Andy Warhol. He became fascinated with Warhol and the growing counterculture lifestyle prevalent in New York during in the early 1970s. Warhol, like Mapplethorpe, was an artistic outsider who grew up with middle-class roots. Warhol succeeded in the art world creating a name for himself and lived a lavish lifestyle of New York. Mapplethorpe and Smith often frequented the same nightclubs as Warhol's group including Max's Kansas City, which was rich in New York's nocturnal cultural.
Having been heavily influenced by Warhol and his experimental underground film, Chelsea Girls (1966), set in the Chelsea hotel, Mapplethorpe moved into that same hotel with Smith in 1969. He was hired on as a photographer for Interview magazine (co-founded by Warhol) which covered international celebrities, artists, and musicians alike. Like many aspiring young artists living on the fringes of society, Mapplethorpe started living a bohemian lifestyle and at times was literally a starving young artist. He and Smith used cheap materials to create their artwork, like magazine cut outs, cardboard, paper, and other found objects on the street. It wasn't until their neighbour, Sandy Daley lent Mapplethorpe her Polaroid that he began taking pictures of himself and Smith. He enjoyed the intimacy and quick reproduction that Polaroid offered, which matched Mapplethorpe's impatience and his impulsiveness, "If I were to make something that took two weeks to do, I'd lose my enthusiasm. It would become an act of labour and the love would be gone." Daley remembers Mapplethorpe intentionally not buying food just to buy more film as he began to experiment with the Polaroid. Surviving Polaroids show him lifting emulsions from one piece of paper, applying new ink, and re-applying it to another surface.
At a dinner party in 1971, Mapplethorpe met the highly influential James McKendry, curator of photography and prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meeting McKendry changed the course of his artistic career in a matter of months. McKendry invited Mapplethorpe to view his collection of historic photos at the museum. Photography had not seriously been considered a fine art, but the collection of photos inspired Mapplethorpe to take up photography as an artistic medium. McKendry later gave Mapplethorpe a Polaroid camera for Christmas to foster his budding photography interest. Through their friendship, McKendry had fallen deeply in love with Mapplethorpe. His love went unrequited and produced depressive mood swings in McKendry. Health complications related to his excessive lifelong drinking habits placed McKendry in a hospital where Mapplethorpe took the last portrait of his friend in 1975.
Mapplethorpe continued to experiment with a range of mediums including Polaroids, collages, and jewellery, and in 1972 he presented his work to curator Sam Wagstaff. As the senior curator at Wadsworth Athenaeum and former curator of contemporary Art at Detroit Institute of Art. Wagstaff became another highly influential connection in Mapplethorpe's career and personal life. He became Mapplethorpe's lover, patron, and financial support for the better part of his career - buying a loft for him in New York, a medium-format Hasselbad camera, and introducing him to the glamorous social life of New York City's upper echelon. Mapplethorpe also helped Wagstaff to become more confident with his sexual identity as a gay man. Sexually charged and intimate photographs of Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff show the trust Wagstaff placed in Mapplethorpe. Furthermore, Wagstaff legitimatized Mapplethorpe's provocative photography to the public in many of his written works and interviews. Mapplethorpe's extreme ambition and social connections helped him land his first solo gallery exhibition of Polariods in 1973 at New York's Light Gallery. Shortly after, he began sending his film to commercial printers, producing silver gelatin prints, and was soon exhibiting his Polaroids alongside Warhol in New York.
The mid-1970s mark the apex of Mapplethorpe's career through his prolific portraiture of close friends, socialites, and his photographic investigations into the darker side of sexual fantasy. In 1975, Mapplethorpe photographed Smith for her debut studio album, Horses. Set in Wagstaff's penthouse, Mapplethorpe demonstrated his maturing black and white style. The photo showed an androgynous figure wearing crisp black jeans, a tucked in white shirt, and an untied tie draped around her neck. A jacket is casually slung across her shoulder drawing a comparison to past music greats like Frank Sinatra. The critically acclaimed album and album cover elevated both Smith and Mapplethorpe to a level of stardom that they had aimed to achieve for many years. Mapplethorpe also started to receive more projects and further recognition from Interview magazine. After finding out that Mapplethorpe was seeing Wagstaff, Warhol warmed-up to the idea of Mapplethorpe becoming a more integral part of the magazine. He became embedded in the "right circle", and was often commissioned to photograph the wealthy in Britain, France, and Spain. Mapplethorpe experienced a disconnect between his paid commercial work and his personal photography:"I think the interesting thing about Penn and Avedon is that they started in commercial photography and then they got into 'art' and they separated the two. Their art was opposed to their work." For Mapplethorpe, his interest was to photograph the people around him and have his art serve an autobiographical purpose - his work was always connected to his art.
The private gay nightclubs like the Mine Shaft, were places for men to go to engage in bondage and leather play which involved (but not limited to) S&M (sadism and masochism), role-play, fetish, and scatological sex. These were safe places for men to indulge in fantasy and find freedom and comfort in their sexual preferences. This is a stark contrast to the world outside where homosexuality was still seen as forbidden, for gay rights were still in a transformative era. At these nightclubs, he would meet men that would later be his photographic muses. Many of the men that were included in his X Portfolio published in 1978 were friends and lovers met at these private clubs. The portfolio consisted of thirteen infamous photographs that include a self-portrait of the artist with a bullwhip inserted into his rectum, two lovers engaging in anal fisting, a man inserting his pinkie finger into his urethra, a man posing submissively on all fours in a head-to-toe latex outfit, among others. This portfolio hardly loses the shock value even among contemporary audiences, and would later define an era of artistic and sexual freedom. Mapplethorpe originally signed his name with a simple x, in his early career, creating a double entendre. "I don't photograph things I've not been involved with myself... I went into photography because it seemed like a perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today's existence. I'm trying to record the moment I'm living in and where I'm living which happens to be New York. I'm trying to pick upon that madness and give it some order. As a statement of the time it's not bad in terms of being accurate. These pictures could not have been done at any other time." Yet, not everyone agreed with Mapplethorpe's approach. Despite the Holly Solomon Gallery representing Mapplethorpe (in part to his connection to Wagstaff), Solomon refused to show the S&M work in an upcoming show. Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe responded by organizing a second show in New York on the same night. Solomon's show consisted of portraiture for the uptown crowd and the other show displayed the S&M images.
The X Portfolio commenced the tripartite division of his mature work: X, Homosexual Sadomasochistic imagery (1978), Y, floral still lifes (1978), and Z, nude portraits of black men (1981). The controversial X Portfolio consisted of raw, uninhibited portraits sparking strong reactions from viewers and eventually building his artistic reputation as a fine art pornography photographer. While the Y and Z albums countered his provocative portraits with finely captured "portraits" of flowers and sculptural male forms. He understood the connection between his classic photos of flowers and portraits and that of sex acts, "I'm working in an art tradition ... to me sex is one of the highest artistic acts."
Mapplethorpe earned his first solo museum exhibition at The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia in 1978. In the following years, his artwork showed at other museums and galleries in the U.S. and around the world. Shortly after X and Y were published, he began working on his Z portfolio creating figural studies of the black made body.
Just one year later, Mapplethorpe took on another new interest: a female body-builder named Lisa Lyon. Mapplethorpe was enticed by her muscular, yet feminine image. "It's the first time I've seen a form like that. It's completely new territory. When I first saw her undraped, it was hard to believe that this little girl could have this form." Lyon also reminded him of his classical influences, such as the sculpture Michelangelo created during the Renaissance, "Lisa Lyon reminded me of Michelangelo's subjects, because he did muscular women." The two collaborated on many projects, including Lady: Lisa Lyon (1983). The portfolio of Lyon helped Mapplethorpe prove he was not just a photographer of solely men, or a pornography photographer, but also a formal master of body-as-sculpture.
His experimentations in finding new forms also led Mapplethorpe to explore new photographic techniques. In 1983, he experimented with silver-dye bleach prints called Cibachrome, platinum prints, platinum prints on canvas, oversized platinum prints along with other nuanced techniques. The high-quality and detailed platinum print helped blur the barrier of painting, sculpture, and photography that Mapplethorpe set out to destruct at the beginning of his career. Mapplethorpe hired staff assistants for his darkrooms, like Tom Baril, who became a master printer while working for Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was more interested in shooting the photograph than the process of printing. He was nevertheless obsessed with realizing his own vision and was a self-confessed perfectionist. He ended up spending much time with his assistants by directing edits, and doing the necessary touch-ups.
Around 1980, Mapplethorpe moved away from S&M images and applied himself primarily to the formalist approach of traditional subjects like flowers and nudes. He admired Ed Ruscha's ability to remove a subject from any context and sought to produce images in this severe formal artistic language. Watermelon with a Knife (1985), Thomas (1986), and Leaf (1989) all emotionally disengage with his previous provocative style.
In 1986, Mapplethorpe went to the hospital for pneumonia where he was diagnosed with AIDS. Just one year later, Wagstaff died of complications related to AIDS (and Warhol died of general health issues the same year). With Wagstaff gone, and his recent diagnosis, Mapplethorpe worked feverishly to complete all the work necessary to become a household name - despite his acknowledgement of not being able to enjoy his success. Once news broke about his diagnosis, the demands for his photographs were greater than ever. As one of his assistants, Tom Baril said, "He didn't stop shooting until he physically couldn't get out of bed."
Mapplethorpe was admitted to the hospital again in July of 1988. Just one week later The Whitney Museum of American Art opened a mid-career retrospective of his work, which was a great success and a rare honor for a photographer at that time. Understanding that he was a dying man and his final days were upon him, he planned a final exhibition titled, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. The show was curated by Janet Kardon of Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art and opened on December 8, 1988. This exhibition featured the X, Y, Z Portfolios, which had never been shown before in their entirety. Eight months after the exhibition opened, Mapplethorpe died of AIDS at a hospital in Boston.
Nevertheless, Mapplethorpe's artwork continued to make waves of controversy after he had passed. The Perfect Moment exhibition, funded in part by the National Endowment of the Arts, was slated for a posthumous nationwide tour. The first host museum for the exhibition was the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Corcoran cancelled the exhibition due to protests of the few images that portrayed homoerotic and sadomasochistic content, and its director resigned in the controversy. The exhibition was the put at the forefront of the late 1980s culture wars headed by Senator Jesse Helms who questioned government funding for the arts and wanted to impose restrictions on what was supported. He successfully shut down the exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. Along with Senator Helms, was the right wing politician Pat Buchanan and religious leaders such as Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson who together focused a concerted attack on the National Endowment for the Arts claiming that the government was supporting artists and museums that were involved in what they considered "anti-Christian bigotry". Though curators and art critics defended Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photography as demonstrating how far photography has come as a fine art, Senator Helms believed his work further derogated fine art to corporeal base. The exhibition was moved to a nearby non-profit called The Washington Project for the Arts, which held a record of 48,863 visitors.
The matter of free expression became a complex congressional topic - one Mapplethorpe no doubt would have enjoyed being at the heart of. When the show travelled to the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Museum, the museum director Dennis Barrie was charged with obscenity for the first time in U.S. history. The jury later found Barrie not guilty. Despite conservative lawmakers promoting censorship of the arts, Mapplethorpe's work has since been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.
The Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe
Louise Bourgeois said of his work, "He is famous not for his flower pictures, he is famous for his objectionable sexual representation." Mapplethorpe was not just a documentarian of the homoerotic lifestyle of the 1970s. There is no doubt that he influenced the art world as a whole, LGBT activism, and censorship laws. Many attribute his giant influence on photography, making it a respected artistic medium, for previously photography was considered utilitarian. His unique contribution to photography has significantly expanded the history of the medium. Not only was he elevating photography to high art standards, but he was a provocateur, so much so that it was considered criminal. Mapplethorpe's name is connected with the infamous culture wars initiated by Republican Senator Jesse Helms. Helms deemed Mapplethorpe's artwork obscene, and this sparked national debate on whether or not tax dollars should fund the arts, as his work included homoerotic images and was shown at Washington's Corcoran Gallery that was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. Other artists were targeted such as Karen Finley and Andres Serrano, and the resulting court case was short lived. Such conversations of art censorship continue in American society today, although Mapplethorpe helped artists retain their freedom of speech by pushing the envelope and raising the bar through art.
Not only has his work irrevocably impacted the world of art, but also Mapplethorpe's message of gay rights and AIDS awareness continue to hold sway. A year before his death, he founded the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation which handles his official estate and donates millions of dollars in medical research as well as funding the fight against AIDS. In 2011, the Foundation donated an archive that spans from 1970 to 1989 to the Getty Research Institute where his artwork will be preserved and protected for future generations.
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 02 Nov 2016. Updated and modified regularly