Robert Mapplethorpe

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Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 - March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, famous for his large-scale, highly-stylised black and white portraits and photos of flowers and other objects. The frank, erotic nature of some of his later work triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of challenging (some would argue pornographic) artwork.

Mapplethorpe was born and grew up in Floral Park, Long Island. He received a B.F.A. from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he produced artwork in a variety of media. Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter, using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a large-format press camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, socialites, pornographic film stars, and visitors to the underground sex clubs. During the 1980s, his photographs became more refined with an emphasis on formal beauty. He concentrated on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe was a great networker, never losing a chance to promote his work, and never failing to invite all his acquaintances to his gallery openings.

Most of his photographs were made in his studio. His most common themes were portraits of (now) famous people (including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, and Patti Smith), S&M-related subjects, and nude (frequently homoerotic) studies. He is perhaps best remembered, however, for his series of closeup photographs of flowers. These highly polished and stylized photographs showed the plants' reproductive parts in extreme detail, intended to echo his more conventional homoerotic works. Mapplethorpe's treated his prints like paintings; he employed special printing techniques and gave them exotic frames.

Mapplethorpe's work was regularly displayed at publicly-funded exhibitions. Many conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association, however, opposed supporting his kind of art, and he became something of a cause celebre for both sides in the debate on the future of the National Endowment for the Arts. The 1990 exhibition of his The Perfect Moment show (which included seven sadomasochistic portraits) in Cincinnati resulted in the prosecution of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director Dennis Barrie on charges of "pandering obscenity". Barrie and the CCAC were subsequently acquitted, but this failed to stifle the raging debate about Mapplethorpe's work.

Mapplethorpe died from complications arising from AIDS in 1989.


  • Patricia Morrisroe: Robert Mapplethorpe: A Biography

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