Here is Robert Mapplethorpe curated by Isabelle Huppert at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, 2013
In the late 1980s, the art world spun into throes of controversy regarding public funding of exhibitions deemed by various public officials and concerned citizens as offensive. At the center of the controversy was the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89). He is still recognized today as a controvercial artist of the 20th century. His photographic works depicting male nudes, homosexual scenarios, and sadomasochistic acts sparked a debate that continues today.
Mapplethorpe was born in Queens, New York, and attended at the Pratt Institute of Art, where he studied painting, drawing, and sculpture, and eventually photography. His earliest photographic works were collages made from photos cut from magazines and then spray-painted. Even then, he took his own photos, using a Polaroid camera.
His first recognition came in 1976 when he had his first one-man show. In addition to nudes, Mapplethorpe was involved in fashion work and often photographed celebrities, friends, and of course, flowers. After studying at Pratt, in the words of Britt Salvesen * "Mapplethorpe met another kid making the mad dash out of suburbia named Patti Smith," who became the legendary Punk Rocker. They shared a room at the Chelsea Hotel, in Manhattan. Mapplethorpe's portraits of Smith are well known, as well as those of Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson.
In 1977, he exhibited for the first time his pictures of men in sexual acts, sometimes with sadomasochistic devices, often set against conventional photographic backdrops and with traditional compositions. Despite a reference to Gay life and sensational subject matter, his work was critically acclaimed.
To step back from Mapplethorpes body of work, it is easier to understand quite simply, his photographs are about beauty, and one's personal preferences and perceptions of what beauty is. But not everyone considers the same subject matter as beautiful and the matter is complicated by the fact that many of his photographs are of male nudes. Although traditionally in art the female form has been accepted as the standard of beauty; as a gay man, Mapplethorpe chose instead to depict images of what was beautiful to him.
Although the technical merit of his works is undeniable, the subject is often difficult for viewers to get past. In fact he often eroticizes his subjects, be it the phallic, details of a blooming lily, or the perfectly defined muscular structure of the nude male form. He challenges the viewers to remove themselves from stereotypes of sexuality most commonly associated with nudity, in particular the genitals.
The paradox, however, is that no matter the subject, his works are undeniably erotic if not inherently sensual. His works raise questions concerning the function of art as a source of beauty and pleasure.
During his relatively short lifetime Mapplethorpe had solo shows at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1978), the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris (1983), and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art (1988).
A major scandal developed over a planned exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, which was canceled because of the controversial content and the potential threat that showing the work could have the gallery's continued federal funding.
The work was eventually shown in Cincinnati, Ohio. And as a result of the exhibit, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center was arrested, tried, and acquitted after a sensational trial on obscenity charges. This exhibit, although not directly funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), was instrumental in fueling the controversy surrounding funding for the NEA and the diminishment of that program's support and effectiveness.
Sadly, Robert Mapplethorpe's life was cut short when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, and died in 1989.
* Juxtapoz, issue 186 (July 2016)
Page author: A.E. & C.F.