Robert Mapplethorpe, American ( 1946-1989 )
Robert Mapplethorpe is remembered as the self-taught, controversial photographer, emblematic of a young, rebellious, and changing New York City.
He was born and mainly active in New York. He studied painting and sculpture at the Pratt Institute, and in the late 1960s was involved with underground film-making before taking up photography, self-taught, in the 1970s. A key stimulus was access to the photography collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art via a friend, John McKendry, its curator of prints and photographs. Though he became more widely known after appearance if his first book, Lady: Lisa Lyon, a study of a female bodybuilder, Mapplethorpe already had a reputation for his artist-portraits (David Hockney, Patti Smith), flower studies, and nudes. Irrespective of subject matter, his images are characterized by flawless craftsmanship and classical poise; especially the black or white male nude is presented as a kind of mortal sculpture.
In the 1980s atmosphere of political and cultural conservatism, fueled by moral panic about AIDS, Mapplethorpe’s aggressive flouting of taboos on male nudity, and some highly explicit homoerotic images made him a controversial figure, together with other ‘transgressive’ artists such as Andres Serrano; his AIDS-related early death increased this notoriety. A wide-ranging retrospective exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment (1989), partly funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), provoked an enormous furor and inflamed the ‘culture wars’ between liberals and the right over issues such as pornography, freedom of expression, and NEA policy. Mapplethorpe’s artistic reputation has survived, however; another major retrospective was held in Brussels in 1993, and in the decade after his death, the prices of significant works increased.