Throughout the history of fine art, certain artists have enshrined themselves among the pantheon of distinguished voices to challenge the medium, pose aesthetic questions that haven’t been asked and invite us to view what hasn’t been seen. Their legacies left indelibly, these artists have transcended how the human experience is composed, framed, and captured — and as an audience, we are grateful to have witnessed such moments of raw honesty and beauty. One of those artists was Robert Mapplethorpe.
Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in Floral Park, Queens in the American suburb – a place he described as “a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave.” In 1963, he would matriculate at the renowned Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, taking up studies of drawing, painting, and sculpture, the latter becoming a major influence on his body of photography work. While attending Pratt, inspired by the mixed-media inclinations of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, he began experimenting with the mixed-media form, typically through assembling collages with cut-outs from magazines and books. He transitioned to Polaroid photography after befriending multi-hyphenate artist Patti Smith, frequently using her as the subject of his earliest portraits — a practice that would trace its way through the bulk of his early work as various socialites, friends, celebrities, artists, and acquaintances often found themselves in front of his lens. He also lent his photographic eye to the commercial art scene, creating album art for several bands as well as becoming a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine.
After his first solo exhibition in 1973, Mapplethorpe’s style noticeably shifted to portraiture with an amplified emphasis on classical beauty, typically manifested through thoughtfully posed studio photography in which his human subjects were often captured in their elegance and bareness — dovetailing with undertones of homoeroticism, sadomasochism, and black-white gradations. Even with his still-life capturings of flowers, the same artistic approach and technique suffused through his work. As he continued to flourish in the 1980s, after composing a significant series of studio portraits and still lifes of Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s BodyBuilding Champion, the provocative nature of his erotic photography would be challenged by religious right groups and even the US Congress, sparking a national debate on whether or not the arts should be funded by the US government.
Sadly, Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS during the epidemic in 1986. Despite his illness, his creative efforts were accelerated and the scope of his artistic vision was broadened.
He would go on to establish the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, an organization committed to the exhibition of photographic art and subsidization of medical research in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
In 1988, four major exhibitions of his work were organized — the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and lastly, presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, his first retrospective.
Robert Mapplethorpe was an exceptionally gifted artist who lent his unique vision to the world, remarkably warping the fine arts landscape to his creative will. Join us at ArtsEmerson from OCY 30 – NOV 3 as we celebrate the groundbreaking work of Robert Mapplethorpe with Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a multidisciplinary marvel with spellbinding acts from vocalists, poets, and musicians.