5 things to know about Robert Mapplethorpe

5 things to know about Robert Mapplethorpe

Image from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Image from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

HBO’s documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures charts the career of the massively influential photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from his formative years as a student at Pratt Institute to his ground-breaking travelling exhibition The Perfect Moment, before his death from AIDS in 1989.

Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Party Monster), the film includes rare footage of interviews with the artist, his family and collaborators and captures the diversity of the photographer’s work, from his series of floral motifs to his portraits of fist-fucking and the queer BDSM culture in 1970s Manhattan.

Kathleen McLean is the AGO’s coordinator of adult programming and says Mapplethorpe’s work is significant to the history of queer sexuality and censorship in the arts.

“Robert Mapplethorpe is widely regarded as one of the world’s most important artists of the late twentieth century. Mapplethorpe carved an enormous space for representations of queer sexualities.”

“His photographs tested the boundaries of creative freedom, and his work holds an important place in the history of artistic struggle for freedom of expression. For a generation who missed out on the so-called culture wars of the early 1990s, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures offers a good introduction to this tumultuous period,” McLean says.

Ahead of the January 18 premiere at the AGO’s Jackman Hall, Yohomo has highlighted five moments from the film that offer a glimpse into the history of one of the most challenging and celebrated artists of the 20th century. 

Pratt Institute, Patti Smith and a monkey called Scratch

By the age of 16, Mapplethorpe had graduated from high school in Queens. He relocated to Brooklyn, where he attended the prestigious Pratt Institute, studying art in a variety of disciplines. His degree included a hated yet mandatory photography class, to which he would take his father’s negatives — Harry Mapplethorpe was an engineer who moonlighted as a photographer — and present them as his own work.

During his time at Pratt, Mapplethorpe kept a pet monkey he called Scratch. One day the artist returned to his apartment and found Scratch dead. Crushed and determined to make the most of a terrible situation, Mapplethorpe beheaded the monkey with a kitchen knife, boiled the flesh off in a pot and used the skull as material for a class assignment.

It was also at Pratt where Mapplethorpe met his first love and future collaborator, writer and musician Patti Smith.

The Chelsea Hotel era, fetish sculpture and a prosthetic cock  

By 1970, Mapplethorpe had dropped out of Pratt Institute before finishing his degree, left Brooklyn and moved into the Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith. The budding art stars were in good company: Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen are among the artists who slept in the storied hotel’s rooms through the years.

Robert Mapplethorope Foundation

Robert Mapplethorope Foundation

During this period, Mapplethorpe began producing what he called “fetish sculpture.” These works included a pair of leather pants with a prosthetic cock and framed pairs of underwear. It was work produced during this era that would form the basis of his practice throughout the 1970s until his death in 1989.

Experimentations with Polaroid film and Mapplethorpe’s first real camera

Before Mapplethorpe’s wealthy boyfriend and benefactor Sam Wagstaff purchased him a loft on Bond Street and a professional Hasselblad camera, the artist began experimenting with photography using Polaroid film. The invitation to his first solo exhibition, Polaroids, in 1973 contained a nude self-portrait and was sealed in an envelope from Tiffany & Co. Once he was in possession of the Hasselblad, Mapplethorpe began photographing celebrities and artists and documenting the underground queer S&M scene in Manhattan, often using subjects he found at bars like the Anvil and the Mineshaft. He also photographed album art for post-punk heroes Television as well as Patti Smith, most notably for her iconic 1975 album Horses.

The self-taught visionary at 24 Bond Street

Despite helping to reinvent photography as a medium by establishing it as a respected art form in the late 20th century, Mapplethorpe was entirely self-taught. His large loft at 24 Bond Street doubled as his studio and was fashioned after Andy Warhol’s Factory. It was in this loft where many of Mapplethorpe’s signature images were captured, but he loathed the dark room and had absolutely no formal training. By the mid-1980s, at the height of his career, the prolific photographer had hired several studio assistants to handle the more technical aspects of his work, including his brother Edward Mapplethorpe. 

A mid-career retrospective and Dominick Dunne’s tasteless and premature obituary

In 1988, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted a mid-career retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work. The celebrated photographer was 41 at the time and his health was rapidly declining; he had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. The exhibit began with the work he made after leaving Pratt Institute in 1970 and followed his career to the present day. The Whitney showcased approximately 110 pieces, including his portrait of Andy Warhol and some of his early sculptures. An ailing Mapplethorpe was in attendance.

Also present at the show’s opening was famed journalist Dominick Dunne, who would later publish a story titled “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Long Good-Bye” that ran in Vanity Fair. The piece read as an obituary of the still living artist and featured a full-page photograph of a very frail Mapplethorpe seated and holding a cane at the opening. Those closest to the photographer felt the article was, at best, an exercise in poor taste.

Before his death in 1989, Mapplethorpe planned his final show. The Perfect Moment featured more than 150 images, including his controversial X, Y and Z portfolios. The touring exhibition sparked national outrage and led to a national debate on art, morality and censorship. The Perfect Moment would feature prominently in the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s and initiated a meaningful dialogue on censorship and queer representation in the arts.

Since Mapplethorpe’s untimely death, his work has been exhibited in galleries globally and influenced generations of artists. Recently, the Mapplethorpe Foundation approached menswear designer Raf Simons, who's known to work with contemporary artists on his designs, in hopes of collaborating on a collection. Since Simons was a fan, he felt honoured and created an acclaimed collection for spring 2017 featuring Mapplethorpe's archive.

image: Virginia Arcaro

image: Virginia Arcaro

The touring exhibition Focus: Perfection Robert Mapplethorpe, his largest career-spanning retrospective in North America and the first of its kind in Canada, is showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until January 22. - Ryan English

The Canadian premiere of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is presented by Films We Like, courtesy of HBO Canada
Wednesday, January 18–Saturday, January 28
Jackman Hall, AGO, 317 Dundas St W
tickets.ago.net

 

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