Artist of the Month: Robert Mapplethorpe

Artist of the Month (August)

Robert Mapplethorpe


Patty Smith (1975), from the Whitney Museum of American Art and now featured in the show Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. Copyright belongs to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2016.

According to the wall text besides the above diptych by Mapplethorpe of his longtime friend, muse, and onetime lover, Patty Smith

… [These photographs are of] a moment shortly before the two artists rose from relative obscurity and poverty to international acclaim, a period documented in Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids. The image on the right served as the cover of Horses, her debut album. Recalling the shoot, Smith has said, “The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one… I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about twelve pictures. By the eighth one, he said, ‘I got it.’”

I spent some time with the work not only because I was aware that Mapplethorpe is having a moment (in addition to being heavily represented in the Whitney show, he is also the subject of concurrent retrospectives at the Getty and the LACMA this summer), but because I was drawn to the honesty of his monochromatic photograph. It recalls the recent Intimisms show at James Cohan Gallery by inviting the viewer into Mapplethorpe and Smith’s private orbit. He captured a delicate androgyny, a combination of confidence and vulnerability, that betrays their closeness. I also found his experimentation with proportions compelling. On the left side of the image, Smith is at the bottom, her figure cut off almost awkwardly. The camera follows the diagonal of a triangular shadow upwards so that on the right, she is front and center, rendering each half surprisingly balanced.

The organic sensuality of Mapplethorpe’s pieces never ceases to wonder me. Even the most artificially arranged of his photographs, such as Ken Moody (1984), seem to be instinctively carnal but subliminally human: they are natural, feeling, and passionately corporeal. This is even the case with pictures of plants.

Here is his bio, courtesy of Artsy (please excuse the redundancy)–

In the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe and musician, poet, and artist Patti Smith lived together in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel where he started shooting Polaroids to use in his collages. Drawn to photography, Mapplethorpe got a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking pictures of his friends and acquaintances—artists, musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars, and members of the gay S & M underground. Despite his shocking content, Mapplethorpe was a formalist, interested in composition, color, texture, balance, and, most of all, beauty. In the 1980s, he concentrated on studio photography, specifically nudes, flowers, and formal portraits that are considerably more refined than his earlier work. After Mapplethorpe died from an AIDS-related illness, his work precipitated national controversy when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Human Interest finishes in February of 2017. If you are able to get there, I highly recommend attending.

And for more Mapplethorpe, check out Artsy’s resource page on the artist, available here.

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