In Association with

Masters of Photography
Robert Mapplethorpe

Text from Richard Marshall, Mapplethorpe


THE DEVELOPMENT of Robert Mapplethorpe's work over the past two decades reveals a strong and consistent vision that strives for perfection and balance in subject and form. Even his earliest works, from 1970 and 1971, display features that would characterize much of his mature art. By 1970, Mapplethorpe had finished art school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he produced paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and was beginning to experiment in other areas. He was not yet taking his own photographs, but rather was exploring the idea of the found object and questioning traditional notions of authorship and originality by making art with pages torn from books and magazines. His deliberate appropriation of printed material represented a bold acceptance of commercially produced imagery as legitimate media for art and underscored the universality and importance of the photographic image in late twentieth-century culture. These concepts had been promoted earlier by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp and, more recently, in the work of Andy Warhol, whom Mapplethorpe greatly admired. In fact, Mapplethorpe used a published childhood photograph of Warhol for one of his own works. This found portrait is composed like a typical Mapplethorpe portrait-frontal, centered, filling the frame. As in all of his magazine pieces, Mapplethorpe masked out certain areas and then spray-painted the remaining surface. In the Warhol picture, a tear bisects the right eye and a layer of spray paint delineates a ghostlike finger shape that seems to point to this torn area, emphasizing the fact that what Mapplethorpe selected, painted, and claimed as his own was a photograph of a damaged photograph. Thus, even at this early stage of his career, he insisted on the recognition of a photograph as an object.

This first portrait of Warhol, although not taken by a camera operated by Mapplethorpe, represents his earliest artist-celebrity portrait. Other works from this same period also include themes and subjects that Mapplethorpe would explore throughout his career. Primary among these are sexuality and eroticism. The untitled kissing boys of 1972, also a painted magazine page, displays overt sexual contact-less frequent in Mapplethorpe's later work, but present nonetheless-and male nudes with visible genitals. The masked and unpainted area over the kissing mouths is that same area usually masked by a black rectangle for censorship purposes. Here it is made more pronounced and noticeable-Mapplethorpe wants to draw attention to the potentially offensive part of the picture. The earlier Leatherman II and Julius of California present another aspect of Mapplethorpe's homoeroticism-the fetishized stereotypical man, here as a cowboy and biker. The cowboy has been partially obstructed by layers of spray paint, although the encircled genital area is highlighted; and the leatherman collage shows cropped body parts superimposed over a male torso. Both works speak for Mapplethorpe's early interest in cropping and details. The spray painted Jesus, 1971, makes reference to Mapplethorpe's Catholic upbringing and foreshadows the religious themes and symbols that recur in his later photography.

These works from the early seventies also reveal Mapplethorpe's desire to manipulate and alter the photographic image in an effort to expand the technical and aesthetic boundaries of traditional photography. in this pursuit, he began to use different printing materials and surfaces, as well as unconventional forms of matting, framing, and glazing. An untitled 1971 collage shows an aggressive ripping of dyed photographs that counters the preciousness usually credited to the photographic print. The slightly later Model Parade is another attempt at manipulating the photographic reproduction process. In this work, Mapplethorpe applied a synthetic emulsion to two pages from a male physique magazine in order to lift the image and its color. He then transferred the dried emulsion onto the canvas, adding color and stretching and distorting the image as he arranged it. He would repeat this process-making a painting on canvas from a printed photograph-in his 1987 series of platinum prints on linen.

Mapplethorpe took his first photographs in the early 1970s with a Polaroid camera, which by that time was being mass-marketed, although it was still "new" and representative of advanced technology. it was the perfect device for Mapplethorpe to adapt. He was not a "photographer," did not think of himself as a "photographer," and did not aspire to become a "photographer." He merely wanted to take his own pictures rather than use someone else's from magazines. The Polaroid was popular, casual, inexpensive, and immediate-all features that appealed to him. In addition, it had been embraced by a number of current artists-Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras, and David Hockney-so that it had a contemporary edge. Mapplethorpe's first Polaroids were of himself. A self-portrait could be done privately without anyone's participation and allowed the freedom of experimentation, trial, and error. A different kind of experimentation -with media other than traditional painting and sculpture-was encouraged by the artistic atmosphere of the early seventies. It was the era of "painting is dead"; it was felt that artistic expression had exhausted itself in Minimalism and Conceptualism. The younger generation, Mapplethorpe included, was left with the task of trying to find alternate subjects and materials to revitalize what they perceived as a stagnant aesthetic mood. The camera, especially the Polaroid camera, was one of many possibilities that Mapplethorpe tried. A 1971 Self Portrait consists of three overlapping photographs of an almost full-figure, naked Robert Mapplethorpe. The three prints are not in exact alignment, suggesting a jerky cinematic sequence; and they are unexpectedly encased in a purple paper bag behind an open screen mesh. This unusual presentation again announces Mapplethorpe's ongoing concern with making an "object" rather than a "photograph." in this instance, the paper bag is not just a frame for the pictures, but carries as much visual importance as the Polaroid photographs.

Mapplethorpe continued to develop this idea of making an object that incorporates photographic information in other Polaroid works from 1973, including a multiple portrait of transvestite "superstar" Candy Darling and one of his friend, the poet-singer-artist Patti Smith. This portrait of Smith is the first of many-exceeded in number only by his self-portraits-which continually reveal the close rapport and trust that developed between photographer and subject. These two multiple portraits suggest a cinematic progression, although they are not sequential or narrative, and illustrate the importance of Warhol's paintings and films for Mapplethorpe's work. Again, Mapplethorpe "objectified" the photographic prints, here by framing them in the original plastic cassettes supplied by the Polaroid manufacturer; the plastic mounts for the Candy Darling portrait are painted in sweet pastel colors, and an untitled 1973 composition of six Polaroids includes painted purple mounts. Mapplethorpe's next Self Portrait increased the size of the photograph and the prominence of the frame. The photographic print is an enlargement of a Polaroid that depicts the artist wearing a leather vest with a clamp attached to his right nipple. His blurred face displays sensations of pleasure and pain. The heavy frame is covered in black leather, with a strip of red leather across the bottom edge. In texture and material the frame reiterates the subject of the photograph. it is one of Mapplethorpe's earliest direct manifestations of a sadomasochistic theme, one that he would more fully develop later.

Works from 1974 and 1975 are even more ambitious in scale and have a different photographic emphasis. The Slave is both a still life and a conceptual self-portrait. It is a photograph of black-and-white photographs in an open book that illustrate two views of Michelangelo's Dying Slave; lying across the bottom of the book is a knife and below these is a small plaque with the artist's last name. As a photograph of a photograph of a statue of a male figure, The Slave questions levels of reality and notions of reproduction while it emphasizes the physicality of the book and reinforces the idea of photograph as object. it also makes reference to male sexuality and introduces the knife that would appear in Mapplethorpe's subsequent pictures and which suggests the elements of threat, danger, pleasure, and pain that often underlie his imagery.

Two related works from 1974 use a photograph in a more detached, conceptual mode. By the late 1960s, such artists as John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, Bruce Nauman, and Edward Ruscha had embraced photography as an acceptable means of contemporary expression. Mapplethorpe was not aligning himself with these artists or attempting to emulate their work, but he did employ a similar conceptual approach to open another area of exploration. Both Wood on Wood and Black Shoes utilize dual pictures and wide frames that outscale the actual prints they surround. In fact, Mapplethorpe designed and constructed the wood-grain frame before he determined what it would contain-a process that again reveals his continued interest in making beautifully designed and crafted objects regardless of their function or contents. Wood on Wood is all about the frame and not about the photographs. Mapplethorpe thought the wood back of the frame was so beautiful that he photographed two areas of it and set these two black-and-white photographs into the frame, thus allowing the front and back of the frame to be seen simultaneously. The work is art about itself-about the formal concerns of its own making and presentation. Black Shoes, two black-and-white photographs of two pairs of black shoes seen from above (possibly symbolic portraits of Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith), is similarly arranged and framed. Self Portrait, also of 1974, shows Mapplethorpe more involved with shaped and painted framing. This stark, moody work is an enlargement of a Polaroid photograph, which accounts for its somewhat grainy resolution. The eccentric shape of the green frame is actually patterned after that of a Polaroid print as it is pulled out of the camera, with angled edges on one end and a tab on the other. This Self Portrait is another example of Mapplethorpe's attention to formal concerns, to aspects of the work that make reference to and are dictated by the materials and medium.

Francois, 1974-75, is one of Mapplethorpe's most severe and formalistic works to date. It consists of the cropped face of a male repeated four times, each face presented in a trapezoid frame with one angled side echoing the line of the subject's neck. The photographs are printed in the primaries red, yellow, and blue, and the frames are constructed in black or white. The four pieces are arranged horizontally and at equal intervals, with one flopped and reversed image and frame facing the other three. This work is very sculptural and recalls not only Warhol's repeated images but, more directly, the repetition and modular construction of Donald Judd's minimal objects and Brice Marden's multipanel paintings. Like other artists of his generation, Mapplethorpe was seeking ways to reconcile two sometimes contradictory aesthetic impulses -the figurative-emotional-intuitive with the abstract-geometric-logical. This search shows Mapplethorpe to have been in sympathy with current ideas in New York painting and sculpture and aware of the concerns of contemporary photography. His attempt to combine the formal with the subjective is not unlike that of other artists at this same moment-Jennifer Bartlett's introduction of recognizable and rudimentary imagery into a strict, gridded format of metal plates; or Susan Rothenberg's use of a horse profile superimposed onto a structured and delineated rectangular paint surface; or Gilbert and George's personal photographic narratives in multipaneled geometric arrangements.

Through the mid-seventies, Mapplethorpe's development was gradual and private-his work had only limited and sporadic public exposure. The invitation to have two simultaneous exhibitions in 1977 prompted him to energetically produce a specific body of work that focused on new types of process, presentation, and themes. He had recently acquired a large-format press camera that produced 4-by-5-inch negatives and next a Hasselblad camera, which he felt confident and comfortable with. His early experiments with the new cameras were, of course, with himself and Patti Smith as subjects. They then progressed to an ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances that included artists, composers, architects, socialites, pornographic film stars, and members of the homosexual underground. By this stage, the camera had become Mapplethorpe's sole means of expression. He did not feel a strong ideological commitment to photography; rather it simply became the medium that could best convey his statement. But he realized that photography had a history, and he set out to educate himself about it. He developed an appreciation for Nadar's portraits and Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs. F. Holland Day's subject matter, homoerotic themes, and framing especially intrigued him. Day's self-portraits as the crucified Christ appealed to Mapplethorpe's awareness of his own Catholicism and his use of the self as subject. In addition, Day's strict insistence on designing the frame and controlling the presentation of his photographs was an important precedent for Mapplethorpe's efforts to make the photograph a unique object. Edward Weston's dedication to nudes, portraits, and still lifes also paralleled Mapplethorpe's specific interests, and George Platt Lynes' seductive depictions of the male form set another precedent.

Along with this keener awareness of styles, subjects, and techniques in the history of photography, Mapplethorpe also came to respect the work of Marcel Duchamp, David Hockney, Man Ray, Edward Ruscha, and Andy Warhol-all of whom produced photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, sometimes sculpture and films, with equal conviction. In addition, like Mapplethorpe, all enjoyed a type of celebrity status, a popularity and renown which, although connected to their art, went beyond the borders of the art world to a larger audience. Although similarities between their art and Mapplethorpe's are numerous, a few specific examples illustrate shared concerns. Duchamp's alter ego in drag, Rrose Sé1avy, introduces the concept of self as art that extends beyond self-portraiture. Mapplethorpe's self-portrait in women's make-up or clothes is an obvious comparison, but in the 1978 ScIfPortrait with a whip inserted in his ass, or the 1982 Self Portrait (with Gun and Star), Mapplethorpe uses his body as an artwork or to represent another persona; the photograph serves to acknowledge the idea or to document the event. Man Ray's solarized photographs of calla lilies not only parallel Mapplethorpe's own interest in floral still lifes, but in experimenting with photographic techniques and procedures as well. Warhol's importance to Mapplethorpe goes beyond formal concerns of repetition and a distanced, nonmoralizing posture toward subject; the two artists also favored similar subjects-shoes, self-portraits, celebrities, genitalia, transvestites, and flowers. And Edward Ruscha's conceptual approach to photography, his appreciation of graphic design, and his use of moiré fabrics are similar to Mapplethorpe's own interests.

During the late 1970s, Mapplethorpe produced a number of multiple-panel photographic objects. These often involved double or triple views of the same person, with slight cinematic variations in posture, or shifts in foreground and background, or a progressively closer focus on the subject. The most pronounced feature of these pieces is the careful attention given to the presentation. Mapplethorpe chose fabrics in rich colors to surround and mat the photographs. This matting integrates a strict, formal geornetry with the softness of the human or floral form. The mats often bleed off one edge-top or bottom-or form three equal squares-which may not, however, be centered in the frame The size and composition of the matting and framing are determined by the photographic print itself. The geometry and proportions are dictated by the standard square format of a photographic image situated on a rectangular piece of photographic paper. In his usual manner, Mapplethorpe is acknowledging the given characteristics of a photograph and its objectness and allowing those factors to determine the arrangement of multiple images. Similar formal considerations are at work in his design of the wood frames and internal divisions. He often employs a double frame in woods of different sizes and grains in order to further reinforce the physicality of the work.

In addition to what is seen, Mapplethorpe is also concerned with how it is seen-or how the eye looks at a surface. The triptych portrait of Brice Marden, for instance, includes one empty section that contains only glass, which reveals the wall behind. This concept not only makes a reference to the monochromatic panels of Marden's own paintings, but startles the eye by forcing it to read depth-to look through the picture. in a similar way, Mapplethorpe engages the viewer by including a mirror as one panel of a piece. The viewer, reflected in the mirror, is brought directly into the picture. This can be especially startling when one sees oneself flanked by two erect penises, as in Bill, New York, 1976-77, or surrounded by flowers as in Easter Lilies with Mirror, 1979. Mapplethorpe wants to make viewing both participatory and confrontational, particularly with shocking or sexually charged images. His choice of subject matter, combined with the manner of its presentation, reveals a number of consistent attitudes. He maintains a desire to make beautiful objects with printed photographic images. He attempts to reconcile the formal concerns of color, texture, form, and balance with the subjective and emotive associations of the photographic image. He wants to allow the photograph to be experienced in a different way, to be accepted on the same aesthetic and critical grounds as painting and sculpture.

Concurrent with Mapplethorpe's assimilation and evaluation of prevalent aesthetic issues of the 1970s was his awareness of the dominant social and sexual issues of the decade. The so-called sexual revolution promoted sexual freedom, liberation, and the acceptability of what had previously been considered aberrant behavior. Within the homosexual population, various substrata flourished, and with them an increase in bars, baths, and clubs that supplied a setting for these different interests. The group identified as sadomasochistic represented both a type of sexual behavior and an adopted style or attitude-often associated with leather and bondage. Mapplethorpe was a sympathetic participant in this group. He felt it was worthy, legitimate, previously unexplored, and an almost obligatory subject for him to treat. He approached it not as a voyeur but as an advocate, wanting to instill through his photographs dignity and beauty to a subject that was outside the accepted norms of behavior. The body of work that Mapplethorpe completed on this subject from 1976 to 1979 brought him a great deal of acclaim and criticism and confirmed his position as an artist of strength, confidence, and talent.

Mapplethorpe's photographs of the early 1980s show a shift away from multiple-panel presentation and away from actively sexual imagery to a phase of refinement of subject and composition that emphasizes a classical, quiet, and formalized sense of beauty. He began a more concentrated approach to the subject of the nude, both male and female, and also continued to do flower still lifes as well as formal portraits of a widening celebrity pool that included not just artists, but movie, fashion, and corporate personalities. He also started to dramatically enlarge his favorite images and have them framed to his specifications. This process was yet another way to make a photograph a one-of-a-kind object. At the same time, these larger pieces could better compete with the size of paintings and have greater visual impact in an exhibition setting. Mapplethorpe continued to explore and extend the boundaries of photographic works by using a variety of printing techniques: color Polaroid, photogravure (both color and black and white), platinum prints on paper, platinum prints on linen, Cibachrome color prints, and dye transfer color prints. in each case, his subjects remained consistent with those in his black-and-white gelatin silver prints, but the visual impression, size, edition, and color quality would vary-all part of his ongoing quest to see things differently. At one point, he attempted to deal only with the formal, geometric design issues inherent in his work and exclude the photographic image completely. This series of objects is composed of traditional classic forms-cross, star, x, triangle-and allowed Mapplethorpe to explore issues of shape, surface, materials, reflection-that is, purely abstract and reductive issues. Although he had eliminated the subjective content of the photograph, these shapes are strongly associative and carry their own symbolic references. These works, such as White X with Silver Cross and Star with Frosted Glass, both of 1983, are in some ways elaborately constructed shaped frames without a picture. They remind us that in the late 1960s Mapplethorpe had made sculpture. They also recall the shaped frames he made during the 1970s and foretell the complex and symbolic framing devices used in 1987 in such works as Andy Warhol and Chest.

The platinum print on linen works of 1987 are especially important because they synthesize a number of Mapplethorpe's concerns. By having a technique devised for printing a photograph on linen, he was able to fuse characteristics of photography and painting. The color, texture, and geometric composition that had always appealed to him are incorporated here as individual panels of stretched fabric which bracket the photographically printed panel. This type of serial arrangement had been present in Mapplethorpe's compositions since the earliest Polaroid groupings, but now it is more fully and successfully realized. Conceptually and visually, he has achieved a beautiful photographic object. His continuing interest in proportion, color, texture, and scale are magnified in these multipanel fabric and platinum on linen works. As in all his art, Mapplethorpe combines abstract, formal considerations with his personal and refined vision of idealized beauty in a photographic image to achieve a powerful and memorable statement."


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