top of page

Robert Mapplethorpe: A closer look at his legacy

Self-portrait (1980) by Robert Mapplethorpe
Self-portrait (1980) by Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 — 1989) was one of the world’s most influential artists and photographers; but, before he worked as a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, produced album covers for noteworthy musicians, and had galleries on display at NYC's Guggenheim Museum, Mapplethorpe was a struggling, experimental, and controversial artist.

Born (on November 4th) in Floral Park, New York, Mapplethorpe was raised in a very strict, middle-class, Catholic family. As the third of six children, he was constantly seeking attention from his parents — a tendency that trickled into his adult life, when he constantly sought the attention of the public. In his teenage years, “he was skinny and socially awkward — not uncommon qualities, of course, but they made living in the shadows of his older brother, Richard, who was outgoing, popular, and athletic, more challenging.”

Like many young artists, Mapplethorpe craved fame, so he networked and formed relationships with various people who eventually helped him achieve success. Of these diverse individuals, the most noteworthy was the artist-poet and future rock musician, Patti Smith. The two met in 1967 and began to influence each other in almost everything they did; Smith can be found in Mapplethorpe’s photos just as often as Mapplethorpe can be heard in Smith’s songs.

At different points in their history, Smith and Mapplethorpe were friends, lovers, soul-mates, artistic muses, emotional support systems, and more. Her 2010 memoir Just Kids is largely about their complicated, beautiful relationship: “I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know” [1].

Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith
Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith

In the book, Smith recalls that Mapplethorpe had romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women throughout his life. The early 1980s marked the beginning of the AIDS crisis, which took the lives of Mapplethorpe’s many friends and lovers, as well as his own.

Before the tragedy struck, however, Mapplethorpe’s sexuality led him to create beautiful and impactful art: “[I]n 1977 Mapplethorpe became increasingly interested in photographing the gay s/m community of which he was not just an observer but an active participant: he spent many late nights prowling New York sex clubs looking for sexual partners and models.”

Mapplethorpe photographed sexually explicit images of mostly men. They were usually naked and engaging in a sexual act of some kind. The photos were often gruesome or hard to look at, they made people uncomfortable, and that was the point. “I'd have a picture of fruit or flowers next to a picture of sexuality next to a portrait of someone socially prominent," he explained. "My interest was to open people's eyes, get them to realize anything can be acceptable. It's not what it is, it's the way it's photographed.”

Mapplethorpe’s Influence & Legacy

While Mapplethorpe’s work was well known within the New York art community, it began to draw widespread attention shortly after his death thanks to a newsworthy controversy at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. The space was scheduled to host Mapplethorpe’s traveling The Perfect Moment exhibition in 1989, along with several other museums, but cancelled the show two weeks before opening citing political reasons.

Although The Perfect Moment was first featured in 1988 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia and then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago without much controversy, a campaign to censor “indecent” art launched by the American Family Association changed the atmosphere of reception by the time the show got to the Corcoran Gallery; it’s director was tried on obscenity charges and subsequently acquitted when the prosecution failed to convince the jury that Mapplethorpe’s photographs lacked artistic merit.

While many tried to censor and criticize his work over the years, in “Sexing up the Secondary Art Curriculum: A Strategy for Discussing Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photographs of S&M and the Black Male Nude in Art Classrooms” (2009), Tara Chittenden argues that Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs are a potential resource for engaging students in discourse about sexuality and race as a part of the secondary art curriculum.

“Mapplethorpe is a useful example because it leads viewers to question why technically beautiful images of dramatically lit and well-framed bodies are classified, by some people, as 'obscene' or 'pornographic' and efforts are made to destroy them... Raising young people's awareness of social issues through contemporary art encourages them to view visual expression as a powerful vehicle for social comment and change...

"Mapplethorpe's artworks constitute specific interventions into contemporary cultural debates about sexuality, race and subjecthood. Discussions around such artworks have the potential to create social spaces that encourage distanced exploration of the pleasures, desires, voices and modes of individual identity formation” [2].

I’d argue that we need Mapplethorpe's work to understand ourselves, just like we need artwork in general to do so. It’s a shame that Mapplethorpe didn’t get to fully see his artistic endeavors through, or witness how much people would praise his work; however, Mapplethorpe’s willingness to experiment and be controversial inspired so many other artists, and their work is evidence of his enduring legacy.

Note* Sources:

[1] Smith, Patti. Just Kids. Harper Collins, 2010. Print.

[2] Chittenden, Tara. “Sexing up the Secondary Art Curriculum: A Strategy for Discussing Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photographs of S&M and the Black Male Nude in Art Classrooms.” International Journal of Education through Art, vol. 5, no. 2/3, Dec. 2009, pp. 157–167. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/eta.5.2and3.157/1.


bottom of page