Robert Mapplethorpe is one of the most celebrated photographers of the last fifty years. While he left the world too early, his legacy lives on in his radical work. This year the Guggenheim New York pays tribute to this iconic artist charting his impact on visual culture.
I remember sitting in a room with one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs. It was November 2016 – the month Mapplethorpe would have turned 70, had his life not been taken by AIDs in 1989. I was at an exhibition on the late artist’s work curated by Juergen Teller (David Hockney, Scissor Sisters and Patti Smith had previously curated exhibitions on his work), looking at a supersize version of Marty Gibson, printed large and pasted up to fill an entire wall, standing on the beach at the edge of curling surf behind him, arms struck out in an athletic pose.
Perfection was Mapplethorpe’s elixir; he searched for his “perfect moment,” relentlessly, obsessively, in the short ten years of his career. Immersed in Mapplethorpe’s queer gaze, his images are still resplendent; raunchy, riveting and rambunctious. 2019 marks another Mapplethorpe anniversary: thirty years since the artist’s death, aged 42. In Spring, a biopic feature film starring Matt Smith as Mapplethorpe, was released, immortalizing Mapplethorpe’s mythological rise, from his time living down and out with Patti Smith, making it as a photographer shooting for Andy Warhol, and his bohemian existence in a loft with Sam Wagstaff, the curator and art dealer who became Mapplethorpe’s patron. He was hellbent on fame, often at the cost of his personal relationships; he has a reputation for being selfish, exploitative and arrogant. His life was his art; it’s inevitable that his story is now as famous as his pictures.
In commemoration of the artist’s work, the Guggenheim New York presents a year dedicated to Mapplethorpe, who is an indelible part of the city’s history. Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now draws connections between various strands in the artist’s work through a retrospective of 200 works, and that of the generation he paved the way for particularly queer artists, who work with their own bodies and sexuality, such as Catherine Opie, Zanele Muholi, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and the painter Lyle Ashton Harris.
Although Mapplethorpe’s explicit exploration of sex and sexuality was front and centre of his work, in recent years institutes have returned to Mapplethorpe’s formal sensibilities. At his major 2017 retrospective in Los Angeles, so big it was hosted at the Getty and LACMA simultaneously, much was made of his traditional techniques and qualities, from his classical lighting to his composition, emphasized in the subtle, timeless eroticism of his flowers and still lifes. The queer gaze on his female muses, Patti Smith, Lisa Lyon, Cookie Mueller, Marianne Faithfull, among them, and his unflinching self-portraits, have also been the subject of more in-depth critical attention.
Meanwhile looking again at Mapplethorpe’s male nudes – Jack Walls, Marty Gibson, Milton Moore (aka Man in a Polyester Suit, 1980) – reveals how he sought to reinvent a subject in art history that stretches back to the Kouros statues of Ancient Greece. During the blazing culture wars of the 1980s in the US, the blatant homoeroticism of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of men landed curators in lawsuits. The political landscape of America today is eerily similar, and Mapplethorpe’s depictions of male bodies as both powerfully erotic and vulnerable – remain radical. “I’m looking for the unexpected,” he once said. “I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.” When you’ve seen as much as Mapplethorpe saw, it’s not hard to surprise the regular viewer.
In Naples, a recent exhibition at The Madre museum, investigated the performative aspects of Mapplethorpe’s photography; it’s inherent fluidity and movement, demonstrated not only in the construction of his images but in his continued interest in dancers, bodybuilders, athletes and musicians – people whose bodies were malleable, flexible, and strong. Gender and race were subordinate to Mapplethorpe’s interest in beauty that could make an image iconic and enduring. His insistence on beauty threatened to consume the artist, reflecting the role it plays in our society; as Mapplethorpe put it, “beauty and the devil are the same thing.”
Few artists have matched Mapplethorpe in terms of the provocativeness of his subjects or the mastery of his medium. His images – like the man himself – are divisive, but love him or hate him, Mapplethorpe’s legacy is ineradicable.