Robert Mapplethorpe

(1946 - 1989) American


Born in Queens in 1946, Robert Mapplethorpe attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in graphic arts, concentrating on drawing, painting, and sculpture. His largely psychedelic work reflected his interest in William Blake and the Surrealists. In 1967, Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith, with whom he will had a long term relationship. Inspired by Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, he started experimenting with various materials in mixed-media collages, boxes, and altarpieces. Mapplethorpe dropped out of Pratt in 1969, without finishing his degree. The following year, he continued to work with collages, now including paint and sexual imagery derived from books and magazines. He began making his own photographs, primarily self-portraits, after acquiring a Polaroid camera. In 1973, Mapplethorpe had his first solo gallery exhibition, Polaroids, at the Light Gallery in New York. Three years later, he acquired a Hasselblad camera and began taking portraits of friends and acquaintances, among them artists, musicians, pornographic film stars, and people in the S&M community. He became increasingly interested in photographing the latter in 1977. At this time, he began exhibiting his work in numerous solo and group exhibitions in North America and Europe, including Documenta 6 in Kassel. Throughout the 1980s, Mapplethorpe focused on figure studies and stylized compositions of male and female nudes, African American men, delicate flower still lives, and studio portraits of artists and celebrities. He also experimented with different techniques and photographic formats. In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1988, one year before his death in 1989, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York presented the first major retrospective of his work. That same year, Mapplethorpe established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection. Also in 1989, the traveling solo exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, was scheduled to be shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Due due the homoerotic and sadomasochistic content of some of the images, the Corcoran cancelled the exhibition. This decision brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts and as well as obscenity and censorship.
Renske van Leeuwen
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