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Monday, November 18, 2013

Robert Mapplethorpe

Sonia and Tracy, 1988, Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe's art
 at it's best (or worst, depending upon your side in the culture wars).
At the time of his death stemming from HIV/AIDS in 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe may have been the most hated artist in America. Why? His work speaks to that. The same artist who photographed the two figures above, also photographed the two faces below. That sort of juxtaposition, though taken from the broad scope of an artist's life's work, makes people nervous. Dozens of excellent, cutting-edge photographers from the latter decades of the 20th century have shot nudes, and quite a number of them are at least as erotic or homoerotic as those of Mapplethorpe. Likewise virtually every portrait photographer in the world takes pictures of children. But the fact that one photographer does both sets off alarms, even in the sophisticated high-culture world of fine art photography. And yes, before anyone asks, Mapplethorpe did, on rare occasions, shoot nude, un-posed, (non-sexual) images of children.
Honey                                                 Eva Amurri
Robert Mapplethorpe Self-portrait, 
Robert Mapplethorpe came from a very ordinary, middle-class family in Queens, New York, one of six children. He studied graphic arts at New York's Pratt Institute but never finished his studies. It was there around 1970, Mapplethorpe first took up photography, not to become a photographer, but to use Polaroid prints he shot himself as part of collages he was making. Actually, very few of these early images actually became a part of his collage work. Instead he reveled in the new found artistic freedom afforded by the fact that with instant photography, there were no darkroom techniques to learn, nor was there any darkroom technician in a position to possibly censor his work. Given the instant feedback the Polaroid camera permitted, his style and technical proficiency in portraiture developed quite rapidly. Within a few years he'd purchased a professional Hasselblad, and was doing high-quality portrait and figural studies of his friends, including his live-in girlfriend, singer-songwriter Patti Smith. They worked together creating art until 1974 when Mapplethorpe decided he was gay. Though separated, they remained close friends.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was among Mapplethorpe's friends and models 
 at his first gallery exposure in New York as seen in this 1976 photo.
Mapplethorpe lived in his Manhattan darkroom studio but worked out of a top floor loft studio borrowed from a friend. He landed his first one-man show in 1977 where he first displayed some of his homoerotic works. Though later quite controversial, at the time, they barely raised eyebrows, perhaps because few people other than the artist's friends in the gay community came to see them. Among those friends, whom Mapplethorpe photographed at the time, were Arnold Schwarzenegger (above), Paloma Picasso, Truman Capote, and Andy Warhol (whom he'd met while studying at Pratt). A photo of Warhol shot by Mapplethorpe a few years later, recently sold at auction for $643,000--the highest price ever paid for a Mapplethorpe image.

Smutty, 1980, Robert Mapplethorpe.
Youthful beauty and androgeny are both major elements in Mapplethorpe's eroticism.
That kind of money comes with name recognition and in Mapplethorpe's case name recognition came with controversy. Homoerotic images, such as the aptly named Smutty (above), some of which Mapplethorpe himself deemed pornographic, are never easy for even the art world to accept. However, the art world knew his name as did what we now call the LGBT community. The rest of the world simply found it easier to ignore an artist whose work they found disgusting to even look at, much less try to understand. That is, until major museums in the U. S. and abroad began mounting traveling shows of Mapplethorpe's work, touting him as one of the most exemplary artist-photographers of the century on a par with Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, and Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Thomas, 1987, Robert Mapplethorpe
--classic human geometry reminiscent of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man.
Some of these museums were at least partially supported by tax dollars. And where there are tax dollars involved there are also tax payers and tax-payer-paid politicians all too willing to be shocked and appalled by most of Mapplethorpe's images. Censorship raised it's ugly head as did controversy involving federal funding for the arts. Shows were cancelled. Shows were moved to other venues. Such a howl of protest aroused public curiosity, having the effect of increasing the size of the crowds at museums and galleries brave enough to display Mapplethorpe's work. The critics were largely split along philosophical lines. However, positive or negative, their reviews served to make Mapplethorpe a household name and his art a lightning rod as well as an iconic standard of excellence in the field of figural photography. Today, the Mapplethorpe Foundation aims to manage both elements of their founder's art while raising money for research into, and treatment of, the disease that killed him.

Poppy, 1988, Robert Mapplethorpe. The artist seldom worked in color, but his fondness for flowers was the exception. Black and white flowers are rather...colorless.

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