Robert Mapplethorpe 1946 —1989


Mapplethorpe has been quoted in saying, "I never liked photography.
Not for the sake of photography.
I like the object.
I like the photographs when you hold them in your hand."


Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in the New York City borough of Queens. At the age of sixteen, in 1963, he left home to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where he concentrated on painting, drawing, and sculpture. Influenced by artists such as Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, he also experimented with various materials in mixed-media collages, including images cut from books and magazines.

After graduating in 1970, the experimented with the idea of the photograph as an object and began to take his own pictures. His first series of Polaroids were self-portraits and of the singer-artist-poet, Patti Smith. After he acquired a Polaroid camera in 1970 and began producing his own photographs to incorporate into the collages, saying he felt "it was more honest." That same year he and Patti Smith, whom he had met three years earlier, moved into the Chelsea Hotel. In the mid-seventies, he acquired a large format press camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. These included artists, composers, socialites, pornographic film stars and members of the S & M underground.

The turning point in his artistic development occurred when, at the age of twenty-five, he met Sam Wagstaff, a former museum curator, who provided him with financial support and encouraged him to concentrate on photography.

Mapplethorpe quickly found satisfaction taking Polaroid photographs in their own right and indeed few Polaroids actually appear in his mixed-media works. In 1973, the Light Gallery in New York City mounted his first solo gallery exhibition, "Polaroids." Two years later he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began shooting his circle of friends and acquaintances-artists, musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars, and members of the S & M underground. He also worked on commercial projects, creating album cover art for Patti Smith and Television and a series of portraits and party pictures for Interview Magazine. His first solo exhibition opened in New York in 1976.

In the late 70s, Mapplethorpe grew increasingly interested in documenting the New York S & M scene. The resulting photographs are shocking for their content and remarkable for their technical and formal mastery. Mapplethorpe told ARTnews in late 1988, "I don't like that particular word 'shocking.' I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before ... I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them." Meanwhile his career continued to flourish. In 1977, he participated in Documenta 6 in Kassel, West Germany and in 1978, the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City became his exclusive dealer.

Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first World Women's Bodybuilding Champion, in 1980. Over the next several years they collaborated on a series of portraits and figure studies, a film, and the book, Lady, Lisa Lyon. Throughout the 80s, Mapplethorpe produced a bevy of images that simultaneously challenge and adhere to classical aesthetic standards: stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and studio portraits of artists and celebrities, to name a few of his preferred genres. He introduced and refined different techniques and formats, including color 20" x 24" Polaroids, photogravures, platinum prints on paper and linen, Cibachome and dye transfer color prints. In 1986, he designed sets for Lucinda Childs' dance performance, Portraits in Reflection, created a photogravure series for Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, and was commissioned by curator Richard Marshall to take portraits of New York artists for the series and book, 50 New York Artists.

Today Mapplethorpe is represented by galleries in North and South America and Europe and his work can be found in the collections of major museums around the world. Beyond the art historical and social significance of his work, his legacy lives on through the work of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Robert enjoyed a great deal of popular and critical success during his short working career. When his close friend, Andy Warhol, for whom he often took photos for "Interview" magazine, suddenly died in 1987, Mapplethorpe started preparing for his own death by establishing an AIDS research foundation in May 1987. He established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and to fund medical research and finance projects in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection. It is a very active and successful Foundation directed throughout by Michael Stout. It has been very supportive of the causes intended.
The first major museum retrospective of his work was presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1988, one year before he died of AIDS.

An important source for modern and contemporary American & European Art in East Hampton, New York & worldwide, Janet Lehr Fine Arts' spectacular wide-ranging inventory consists of unique paintings, drawings, large & small scale sculpture, monotypes, prints and photographs  by Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Fernando Botero, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Chagall, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, David Hockney, Winslow Homer, Wolf Kahn, Jeff Koons, Fernand Leger, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Thomas Moran, Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Charles Sheeler, Bert Stern, Alfred Stieglitz, Andy Warhol, Carleton E Watkins, Tom Wesselmann and Andrew Wyeth.

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View synoptic biography below.


Bibliography (Synoptic)

Danto, Arthur Coleman, 1924-
Playing with the edge : the photographic achievement of Robert

Mapplethorpe / Arthur C. Danto. Berkeley : University of California
Press, c1996.

Fritscher, Jack.
Mapplethorpe : assault with a deadly camera : a pop culture memoir, an
outlaw reminiscence / Jack Fritscher. 1st ed. Mamaroneck, NY : Hastings

House, c1994.

Mapplethorpe, Robert.
Altars / Mapplethorpe ; essay by Edmund White. 1st ed. New York :

Random House, [c1995].

Weston, Edward, 1886-1958.
The garden of earthly delights / photographs by Edward Weston and
Robert Mapplethorpe ; curators, Mark Johnstone, Jonathan Green ; with
essays by Irene Borger ... [et al.]. [Riverside, Calif.] :
UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California,
Riverside, c1995.

Kardon, Janet.

Robert Mapplethorpe : the perfect moment / Janet Kardon ; with essays
by David Joselit and Kay Larson and dedication by Patti Smith.
Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art, c1988.

Mapplethorpe, Robert.
Robert Mapplethorpe / Patti Smith. [New York] : Bellport Press, 1987.

Permanent Collections include:

  • Dallas Museum of Art;
  • Denver Art Museum;
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art;
  • Miami Museum of Art ;
  • Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California;
  • The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art;
  • Smith College Museum of Art;
  • Australian National Gallery, Canberra;
  • Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany;
  • Hara Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan;
  • Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel;
  • Centre Pompidou, Paris, France;


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