Today is the 68th birthday of the photographer Robert Maplethorp. The world is a better place for having him in it and still feels the loss from him leaving it.
NAME: Robert Mapplethorpe
OCCUPATION: Activist, Painter, Photographer, Sculptor
BIRTH DATE: November 04, 1946
DEATH DATE: March 09, 1989
EDUCATION: Pratt Institute
PLACE OF BIRTH: Floral Park, New York
PLACE OF DEATH: Boston, Massachusetts
Best Known For: Robert Mapplethorpe, recognized as a giant of late 20th century photography, is best known for his large-scale, highly stylized black and white portraits.
Mapplethorpe was born and grew up as a Roman Catholic of English and Irish heritage in Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Floral Park, Queens, New York. His parents were Harry and Joan Mapplethorpe and he grew up with five brothers and sisters. He studied for a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in graphic arts, though he dropped out in 1969 before finishing his degree. Mapplethorpe lived with his partner Patti Smith from 1967 to 1974, and she supported him by working in bookstores. They created art together, and even after he realized he was homosexual, they maintained a close relationship.
Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. By the 1980s his subject matter focused on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe’s first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s, his mentor and lifetime companion art curator Sam Wagstaff gave him $500,000 to buy the top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street, where he lived and had his shooting space. He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom.
Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, 42 years old, in a Boston, Massachusetts, hospital from complications arising from AIDS. His body was cremated and the ashes buried in Queens, New York, in his mother’s grave, marked “Maxey”.
Nearly a year before his death, the ailing Mapplethorpe helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. His vision for the Foundation was that it would be “the appropriate vehicle to protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about”. Since his death, the Foundation has not only functioned as his official estate and helped promote his work throughout the world, it has also raised and donated millions of dollars to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV infection.
Mapplethorpe worked primarily in the studio, particularly toward the end of his career. Common subjects include flowers, especially orchids and calla lilies, and celebrities, including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith. Smith was a longtime roommate of Mapplethorpe and a frequent subject in his photography, including a stark, iconic photograph that appears on the cover of Smith’s first album, Horses. Also, a Patti Smith portrait from 1986 recalls Albrecht Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait.
Other work includes homoerotic and BDSM acts (including coprophagia), and classical nudes. Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio series sparked national attention in the early 1990s when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by National Endowment for the Arts. The portfolio includes some of Mapplethorpe’s most explicit imagery, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. Though his work had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association, seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called “nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material.” As a result, Mapplethorpe became something of a cause célèbre for both sides of the American culture war. The installation of The Perfect Moment in Cincinnati resulted in the unsuccessful prosecution of the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie, on charges of “pandering obscenity”.
His sexually charged photographs of black men have been criticized as exploitative. Such criticism was the subject of a work by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991–1993). Ligon juxtaposes Mapplethorpe’s 91 images of black men in the 1988 publication Black Book with critical texts to complicate the racial undertones of the imagery.