See biography by P. Morrisoe (1995); studies by R. Marshall (1988) and A. C. Danto (1995); The Perfect Moment (CD-ROM, 1995).
(born Nov. 4, 1946, New York, N.Y., U.S.—died March 9, 1989, Boston, Mass.) U.S. photographer. He attended the Pratt Institute (1963–70). By the mid 1970s he was pursuing what were to remain his favourite subjects throughout his career: still lifes, flowers, portraits of friends and celebrities, and homoerotic explorations of the male body. His compositions were generally stark, with his combination of cold studio light and precise focus creating dramatic tonal contrasts. His muscular male models were generally framed against plain backdrops, sometimes engaged in sexual activity or posed with sadomasochistic props such as leather and chains. His clear, unflinching style challenged viewers to confront this imagery. Moreover, the combination of his choice of subject matter with the photographs' formal beauty and grounding in art-historical traditions created what many saw as a tension between pornography and art. A posthumous retrospective exhibition of his work in 1990, funded partly by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), stirred a debate about government subsidies of “obscene” art and provoked Congress to enact restrictions on future NEA grants.
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Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. In the 1980s he refined his aesthetic, photographing statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe's first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s Sam Wagstaff gave him $500,000 to buy the top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street, where he lived and had his shooting space. He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom.
Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, in a Boston, Massachusetts hospital from complications arising from AIDS; he was 42 years old. His ashes were buried in Queens, New York, in his mother's grave, marked 'Maxey'.
Nearly a year before his death, the ailing Mapplethorpe helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. His vision for the Foundation was that it would be "the appropriate vehicle to protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about". Since his death, the Foundation has not only functioned as his official Estate and helped promote his work through out the world, but it has also raised and donated millions of dollars to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV infection.
His sexually-charged photographs of black men have been criticized as exploitative. Such criticism was the subject of a work by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991-1993). Ligon juxtaposes several of Mapplethorpe's most iconic images of black men appropriated from the 1988 publication, Black Book, with various critical texts to complicate the racial undertones of the imagery.
After the Corcoran Gallery of Art refused the Mapplethorpe exhibition, a small, non-profit arts organization, the Washington Project for the Arts picked it up and showed the controversial images in their own space on 7th and E Street, NW from July 21 - August 13, 1989.
The book in question was Mapplethorpe, published by Jonathan Cape 1992. The university Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter Knight, supported by the Senate took the view that the book was a legitimate book for the university library to hold and that the action of the police was a serious infringement of academic freedom. The Vice-Chancellor was interviewed by the police, under caution, with a view to prosecution under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act. This Act defines obscenity as material that is likely to deprave and corrupt. It was used unsuccessfully in the famous Lady Chatterley's Lover trial. Curiously the police were not particularly interested in some of the more notorious images which could have been covered by other legislation. They focused on one particular image, 'Jim and Tom, Sausalito 1977,' which depicts one man urinating into the mouth of another.
After the interview with the Vice-Chancellor a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service as the Director of Public Prosecutions has to take the decision as to whether or not to proceed with a trial. After a delay of about six months the affair came to an end when Dr Knight was informed by the DPP that no action would be taken as 'there was insufficient evidence to support a successful prosecution on this occasion'. The original book was returned, in a slightly tattered state, and restored to the university library.
In 2003, Arena Editions published Autoportrait, a collection of black and white Polaroid self-portraits that Mapplethorpe took between 1971 and 1973. This was the first time these early works became available for widespread viewing since the 1970s.
In 2006, a Mapplethorpe print of Andy Warhol was auctioned for $643,200, making it the 6th most expensive photograph ever sold.
In 2007, American Writer, Director and Producer James Crump Directed the documentary film Black White + Gray, which premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. It explores the influence Curator Sam Wagstaff, Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Musician/Poet Patti Smith had on the 1970's art scene in New York City.
In 2007, Prestel published Mapplethorpe:Polaroids, a collection of 183 of approximately 1,500 existing Mapplethorpe polaroids. This book accompanies an exhibition by the Whitney Museum of American Art in May 2008.