Artist Robert Mapplethorpe's Provocative Photos on Display at Getty


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Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) is one of the best-known and most controversial photographers of the 20th century. As a taste-maker and provocateur, his highly stylized explorations of gender, race, and sexuality became hallmarks of the period and exerted a powerful influence on his contemporaries.

 In recognition of the 2011 joint acquisition of Mapplethorpe’s art and archival materials with the Getty Research Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Getty Museum presents "In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe." The exhibit is on display through March 2013.

Containing 23 images that date from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the Getty’s exhibition features key last of edition prints, rarely show nearly unique mixed-media objects, and Polaroids™,as well as a wide range of subject matter including

self-portraits, nudes and still lifes. Before he took up the camera, Mapplethorpe often used pictures he cut out of magazines as collaged elements to explore sexuality and eroticism.

In Leatherman #1 (1970), Mapplethorpe alters a fetishistic image and represents it in a shadow box, removing the picture from its original context and elevating it to a homoerotic icon. His early work also reflected the influence of his idol, Andy Warhol, and it is perhaps Warhol’s cover art for the band The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album featuring a banana that inspired Banana & Keys (1973), a photograph-in-a-box construction. This object marks a transition in Mapplethorpe’s work between his collages and sculpture and his work as a photographer.

“The mixed-media objects and Polaroid™ snapshots in the exhibition demonstrate the struggle of a budding artist to find his proper medium of expression and develop his aesthetic vision,” said Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“However, the carefully crafted gelatin silver and platinum prints make evident Mapplethorpe’s mature style as well as his eye for prints of the highest quality and beauty.”As Mapplethorpe committed his focus to photography, he began to explore the subjects to which he would return throughout his career – portraits, self-portraits, and nudes. Photographs that feature these subjects are among his best-known, and continue to influence artiststoday. One of his earliest celebrity portraits, Patti Smith (1975), was carefully staged by Mapplethorpe and Smith, his lifelong friend. Dressed in men’s clothes and channeling the American entertainer Frank Sinatra, Smith broke radically from the image that women in rock were expected to assume, and embodies the androgyny often found in Mapplethorpe’s photographs.

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 1967–1974, and she supported him by working in bookstores. They created art together, and even after he realized he was gay, 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. In the 1980s he refined his aesthetic, photographing 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.

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.

In the summer of 1989, Mapplethorpe's traveling solo exhibit brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts, who defines what is obscene, and what censorship should be acceptable. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had agreed to be one of the host museums for the tour. Mapplethorpe decided to show his latest series that he explored shortly before his death. Titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, it was curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The hierarchy of the Corcoran and several members of the U.S. Congress were upset when the works were revealed to them, due to some of the content being homoerotic and sado-masochistically themed. The museum refused the exhibit's stop during the national tour.


Visit your local library for resources on this subject:

Robert Mapplethorpe: 1970-1983
Robert Mapplethorpe, (1983).

50 New York artists: a critical selection of painters and sculptors working in New York
Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Marshall, (1986).

Mapplethorpe portraits
Robert Mapplethorpe, (1988).

Some women
Robert Mapplethorpe and Joan Didion, (1989).

Robert Mapplethorpe: the perfect moment
Janet Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Joselit, and Kay Larson, (1989).

Robert Mapplethorpe, (1990).

Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Marshall, (2001).

Robert Mapplethorpe and the classical tradition: photographs and Mannerist prints
Robert Mapplethorpe,Germano Celant, Arkadii Ippolitov, Karole P B Vail, and Jennifer Blessing, (2004).

Polaroids: Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Sylvia Wolf, (2007).

All images copyrighted:
Article illustration:
Robert Mapplethorpe
American, 1946–1989
Self-Portrait, negative 1980; print 1990
Gelatin silver print
Image: 35.6 x 35.6 cm (14 x 14 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation.
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe
American, 1946–1989
Leatherman #1, 1970
Mixed media
Frame: 38 x 48 x 2.5 cm (14 15/16 x 18 7/8 x 1 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation.
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Album cover: "Horses" by Patti Smith.
Cover art:
Robert Mapplethorpe
American, 1946–1989
Patti Smith, negative 1975; print 1995
Gelatin silver print
Image: 35.8 x 35.5 cm (14 1/8 x 14 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by The David Geffen Foundation, and The J. Paul Getty Trust
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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