Robert Mapplethorpe: Retrospective
November 1996 –
‘I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence’ – Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs have brought him both adulation and condemnation worldwide. His work first came to public attention – and gained considerable notoriety – in the second half of the 1970s. It did so not on the basis of its presentation, but because of its sensational subject matter. Like scores of photographers before him – Lewis Hine, Brassai, Weegee – Mapplethorpe chose to depict a subculture seldom photographed before, or at least seldom seen in the contexts of fine-art photography. In his case, the subculture is a sado-masochistic, male homosexual one. They sparked controversies and fueled debates about censorship and artistic freedom during his lifetime, and have continued to do so since his death from AIDS in 1989.
This retrospective, toured internationally by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, is the most extensive exhibition of his work ever mounted. Presenting over 200 images, it illustrates the full range of his oeuvre, from glamorous society portraits and seductive flower studies, to the highly formalized figure studies and sexually-explicit images on which his reputation and notoriety are founded.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s graphic portrayals of sadomasochism represent only the beginnings of the artist’s mature career, however. Since the late 1970s he also became known for his elegant portraits of cultural celebrities and of friends, and for portrait like images of flowers. Curiously, this less explicitly eroticized work has proven equally fascinating – perhaps, because, in all of Mapplethorpe’s pictures, the act of looking is akin to being seduced.
During the seventies and eighties Mapplethorpe moved with ease between New York’s sexual underworld and its cultural elite; he has been described as a ‘society photographer in the largest sense’. His portraits of celebrities included Andy Warhol, Isabella Rosellini, Sigourey Weaver, and a series of pictures of his one time partner, Patti Smith. His works, all produced under ideal studio conditions, show an exercise of total control over form, pose, and the fall of light.
Whitney curator Richard Marshall suggests that it is the combination of “abstract, formal considerations” and idealized beauty that gives Mapplethorpe’s photographs their ‘charge’. Roland Barthes remarks in his famous book Camera Lucida, Mapplethorpe’s photographs have that poignant sense of “having been there”.