Thirty years have gone by since iconic American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died from HIV/AIDS-related complications. What began as an exploration of his personal identity after receiving two cameras as gifts became a lifelong passion for photography. Mapplethorpe’s work tested the boundaries of art as it was known in the '70s and '80s, featuring hundreds of portraits of the S&M subculture of New York City, nudes, and still-lives as his subjects of choice. This month,
The exhibit will showcase Mapplethorpe’s unique impact on photography as a medium. Explicit sexuality, homosexual couples, and gender-queer presentations have existed in art for as long as art has been created, but Mapplethorpe brought these themes into the walls of the art sphere in graphic, unapologetic, and complex photos. His works were snapshots of stories integral to his life and New York’s identity, stories often pushed underground and ignored by the upper echelons of society. The seminal X, Y, and Z Portfolios brought a subculture of New York into the ivory towers. Mapplethorpe challenged viewers to see the complexities in an often misrepresented or ignored lifestyle by carefully placing real men and women exploring and subverting gender and sexuality into classical portrait settings.
Robert Mapplethorpe Ajitto, 1981 Gelatin silver print, 45.6 x 35.6 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 95.4322 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
Lauren Hinkson, Associate Curator, Collections, and Susan Thompson, Associate Curator told me via email about one particular portrait that is a perfect example of Mapplethorpe’s tension in S&M photography. “[Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (1979)] features two men, one seated and one standing, outfitted in black leather outfits and bondage chains. Their self-presentation is clearly suggestive of their involvement in the underground S&M scene, but the image’s composition, its subjects’ poses, and the domestic setting place it within a fairly traditional history of portraiture,” Hinkson and Thompson say. “The cultivation of this kind of dissonance, or tension, is one of the special qualities of Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography that make his images so captivating and irresistible.”
Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait, 1980 Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 35.6 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4289 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs intricately blend together religion, sexuality, gender, and race into complicated stills that feel both casual and abundant with substance. Religious iconography and symbols can be seen in his portraits of celebrities from Mapplethorpe’s time—such as in Andy Warhol (1986), where the icon’s bare expression is crowned with a halo of light—as well as the S&M pieces. Dominick and Elliot (1979) shows a couple with one man hung upside down, nude and chained, both arms stretched out, creating an upended image of the crucifixion. Mapplethorpe’s Roman Catholic upbringing influenced many of his pieces and helped to infuse each photo with a complex story to match his complex, and at times, conflicting identity.
In 1993, the Mapplethorpe Foundation made a gift of approximately 200 photographs to the Guggenheim. As 2019 is the 30th anniversary of Mapplethorpe’s death as well as the 60th anniversary of the Guggenheim’s founding, the museum decided to create an exhibition that would showcase how the artist impacted the museum and the medium of photography at large. According to Hinkson and Thompson, “The pictures are in many ways timeless, but it is perhaps surprising that the response they received in the 1980s and 90s is still relevant today. So much of the work is more nuanced than one can glean from a first impression. We hope to share a more complete and complicated view of his practice, one that pushes this prolific photographer’s work beyond past controversies and into the moment we are living in now.”
Robert Mapplethorpe Lisa Lyon, 1982 Gelatin silver print, 48.7 x 38.7 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4294 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
Mapplethorpe’s influence brought together some of the greatest artists of his time, through collaborations such as his decades-long relationship with Patti Smith, the genesis of careers for models and other artists, and the exploration of the homosexual community in Manhattan in high art. His was a life that will forever be a cornerstone in the history of photographic art, and viewers can learn more in the coming months when the Guggenheim will be screening films and documentaries such as Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe and Mapplethorpe, in select theaters this March.
Robert Mapplethorpe Ken and Tyler, 1985 Platinum-palladium print, 59.4 x 50.2 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 96.4373 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now will be on view in two installments at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from January 25–July 10, 2019 and July 24, 2019–January 5, 2020.