Mapplethorpe, Robert

American (1946-1989)

Mention the name, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), and you are certain to elicit a wide variety of potent opinions. Best known for his “X Portfolio” of frankly homoerotic content, Mapplethorpe attracted national attention in 80s and 90s when his work became the catalyst for debates around what should and shouldn’t be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The fury got so heated that major donors to the Corcoran Museum withdrew their endowment because the museum refused to show the work. Though Mapplethorpe’s content was often shocking, his skillful technique also contributed to the confrontational nature of his shots; his compositions were often stark and shot with sharp focus under high contrast lighting, producing unflinching gazes at whatever was in front of the camera.

Sadly, these later years have eclipsed some of his earlier achievements. Trained in painting and sculpture, influenced by Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, Mapplethorpe was an accomplished mixed-media, three dimensional collage artist. He “fell into” photography when he began taking pictures for some of his collages, believing it to be more honest than “borrowing” others’ images. After a 1973 solo show of Polaroids, Mapplethorpe began photographing for print advertising, album covers and magazines. During this period, he began utilizing the aforementioned techniques on the calla lily, producing glorious images that foreshadowed his nudes. Shortly thereafter, he became involved in photographing the S & M community, where he believed he contracted the AIDS virus, which killed him in 1989. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation exists today to protect his work and champion his causes.