Robert Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre includes drawing, collage, and assemblage pieces, but it was his photographic oeuvre that helped his career take off. His striking black and white photographs captured the artists and celebrities of New York City of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the underground S&M scene. His work was considered shocking by many and later became a focal point in debates during the culture wars of the 1990s.
Content Warning: This post contains graphic images and discussions that may not be suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Early Years
Robert Mapplethorpe was born in Queens, New York in 1946. He was raised in a strict Catholic family and was one of six children. His religious upbringing would have a lasting impact on his work. This is most obvious in his early pieces, which often drew on religious symbols and imagery.
In 1963, he attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied sculpture, painting, and drawing. In his early years as an artist, he experimented widely. His output included drawing, painting, collage, and mixed media assemblage. His early influences included Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, and the Surrealists. He also pulled inspiration from religious imagery, Tantra, Tarot cards, and pornographic magazines.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The 2-Part Wood Collage assemblage piece shows a lot of Mapplethorpe’s early style. The work is arranged in the shape of a cross and is assembled from wood, metal, and various found objects including a drawing, a lock of hair, a harmonica, and a mold of someone’s teeth. There is a certain tension between the delicate nature of the pencil drawing or the lock of hair, and the menacing scissors that hang above. Much of Mapplethorpe’s later work would be full of tensions too, exploring the limits of gender, sex, beauty, and taboo.
The Polaroid Camera
In 1969 Mapplethorpe and his close friend Patti Smith moved into a room at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Their relationship was complicated and intense. They started out as lovers and lived together in a rented apartment for some time, but ultimately their romantic relationship broke down. However, they remained close friends and creative partners for life.
During their time at the Chelsea Hotel Mapplethorpe met many other artists and creatives. In 1970 artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley gave him a Polaroid camera. This was his first foray into the world of photography. Initially, Mapplethorpe did not consider photography to be a legitimate art form, but rather a means to an end.
He used his Polaroid camera mainly to capture images of himself and his friends in unusual poses and contortions, which he then incorporated into his other works. He felt that this was more honest than using found photographs. With the Polaroid, he was able to use images that were tailor-made for his work, and also explore his own relationship to his body and his own sexuality in a more direct way.
Over time, however, Mapplethorpe began to consider his polaroids as works in their own right, and throughout the early 1970s, he took countless photographs. Some were studies of the human form, both male and female, some were portraits of friends, artists, and celebrities that he met in New York, and many were self-portraits. Speaking about his Polaroids, Mapplethorpe said: I’m trying to record the moment I’m living in and where I’m living, which happens to be in New York. These pictures could not have been done at any other time.
Mapplethorpe’s first solo exhibition was held in 1973 at the Light Gallery in New York City and it was called Polaroids. During the years between 1970 and 1975, the artist was really honing his photographic style. Much of the elegant composition and modernist aesthetic can be seen in these early works. However, there is a certain immediacy, vulnerability, and intimacy in the Polaroids that is often missing from his later works.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Portraits
In 1975, Mapplethorpe was given a Hasselblad 500 camera. It was a gift from his lover, benefactor, and mentor Sam Wagstaff, whom he met in 1972. He would remain intimate with him until Sam’s death in 1987.
This camera encouraged Mapplethorpe to move away from the Polaroid and embrace photography wholeheartedly as an art form. Much of the formal interests that he explored in his Polaroids were finely tuned in his later photography. His subject matter remained much the same throughout his career. These included portraits, nudes, erotica, and still lives. His photographs never became boring though. Mapplethorpe always cast a fresh eye on the world, always bringing beauty and simplicity to the fore. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mapplethorpe continued to photograph his growing circle of friends and acquaintances, which increasingly included famous people.
This 1986 portrait of Andy Warhol depicts the artist as an icon, with his distinctive features framed in a halo of white light, like a saint. Mapplethorpe hugely admired Warhol’s work and his career and actively sought friendship with him. Even his move to Manhattan in 1969 was partially motivated by a desire to meet Warhol. In total, Mapplethorpe photographed Andy Warhol four times during his lifetime.
A hugely important strand of Mapplethorpe’s practice includes his nudes. Using both men and women as models, these images were often studies of form and light, which portrayed the body as a thing of beauty and an aesthetic object. Mapplethorpe often questioned accepted gender norms that portrayed men as rough and cold and women as weak and emotional.
Photographs such as Ajitto brought the male body into the spotlight, with a tender eye and an appreciation for beauty. With stark lighting and heavy shadows, Mapplethorpe’s nudes often appear more as statues, their marble skin sculpted and perfect. The eroticism in these images is sometimes shocking and sometimes more subtle. In this image, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the figure’s vulnerability—the face is hidden, the body curled up, perched precariously on a thin pedestal. The silhouette of his genitalia is more of an aside than a focal point, making this an image of male beauty and vulnerability.
Portraits of Lisa Lyon
Mapplethorpe continued to question beauty and gender norms in his portraits of Lisa Lyon, whom he first met in 1980 when she was the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion. Mapplethorpe was fascinated with Lisa Lyon and he also compared her to Michelangelo’s sculptures, His admiration for Lisa’s unique blend of femininity and muscularity is evident in the images he captured. Through his lens, he highlighted her sculpted physique, capturing her power and grace with sensitivity and sensuality. These images challenged the boundaries of traditional aesthetics and redefined conventional beauty standards.
Perhaps the most shocking strand of Mapplethorpe’s work includes his photographs of the S&M scene of New York, which he captured throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s. These photographs pushed the boundaries of artistic expression and challenged societal norms. Through his signature stark black-and-white style, Mapplethorpe revealed the subculture’s raw power and intimate vulnerability.
Mapplethorpe himself largely rejected the idea that these works were shocking. His commitment to unearthing the unexpected allowed him to capture the essence of S&M relationships without judgment or exploitation. These images were met with strong opposition from conservative groups and politicians who deemed them obscene and offensive. The photographs were initially exhibited with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), leading to a broader debate about whether taxpayers should support art that some considered controversial or offensive.
These photographs, though controversial, carried a sense of aesthetic beauty and formal precision that commanded respect within the art world. They continue to inspire and challenge contemporary artists and audiences, prompting reflection on the boundaries of eroticism, consent, and the human experience.
With meticulous attention to detail and a keen sense of composition, he transformed simple flowers into captivating studies of form and beauty. Mapplethorpe’s mastery of light and shadow imbued his floral images with a grace that is at times quite moving. By elevating these natural subjects to the realm of fine art, he demonstrated his ability to find elegance and allure in even the simplest of forms. There is also a sensuality in these images. Flowers are, scientifically, the procreating organs of plants, and the gentle curve of petals recall the curves of naked bodies in his nudes.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Death and Legacy
Robert Mapplethorpe left an indelible mark on the world of photography before his untimely death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989. He was only 42. The year before he died, he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, to celebrate and promote photography, preserve his own work, and fund research to fight HIV.
Renowned for his provocative and controversial works, Mapplethorpe pushed the boundaries of art and challenged many norms. Despite facing criticism and censorship during his career, Mapplethorpe’s legacy endured. His contributions to the art world are still celebrated for their unapologetic exploration of the human form and the human condition. Beyond the controversies, his photographs continue to be recognized for their technical excellence and artistic innovation.