Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) is known for moving the boundaries of photography trough his experimental techniques and his controversial and often explicit motives.
Mapplethorpe’s diverse work show a wide range of subjects, from floral still lives, pictures of children, commissioned portraits of celebrated personalities, homoerotic images to mixed-media sculpture: all united by a constancy of Mapplethorpe’s approach to beauty. The surfaces of his prints offers an endless gradation of blacks and whites playing with shadow and light. Regardless of subject, his images are both elegant and provocative.
Mapplethorpe studied painting and sculpture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1963, and during this time, he met artist, poet and musician Patti Smith. They sheared a unique friendship, and Smith encouraged Mapplethorpe’s work and posed for numerous portraits early on. They started out living together in Brooklyn, before they moved to Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, a gathering place for artists, writers and musicians. This period of his life had great significance his career.
Before Mapplethorpe discovered photography, he made assemblage constructions that incorporate images from magazines with found objects and painting. In order to create his own images for these collages, Mapplethorpe turned to taking pictures using a Polaroid SX-70 camera and later took on working as a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
Mapplethorpe had his first substantial show in 1977 in New York where he showed photographs of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery. In 1978, Mapplethorpe published the controversial photo series X Portfolio, a group of thirteen silver gelatin prints depicting homoerotic and sadomasochistic subjects.
In 1988, Mapplethorpe had four major museums shows during his lifetime: the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Mapplethorpe died due to complications from AIDS on March 9, 1989 in Boston. His then ongoing retrospective show at the Institute of Contemporary Art of Pennsylvania continued to travel after his death. The show has later ignited a fierce public debate in America about censorship and the public funding of the arts.
Today Mapplethorpe’s works can be found in collections of numerous major museums around the world, such as Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Tate Modern, London, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, etc. His legacy lives on through the work of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which he established in 1988.