The Bounds of Creative Expression

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Photography icon Robert Mapplethorpe is known for images particularly beautiful—and controversial. The exhibit Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now celebrates his distinctive approach in the first of a two-part series at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. This venue offers a truly fitting location as the museum has one of the most complete Mapplethorpe collections in the world. The retrospective begins with early Polaroids and collages and follows his development into classical nude and still-life imagery. The presentation is rounded out by portraits of himself and many others, as well as his infamous explicit pictorials. It is his stark vantage that is especially breathtaking and ultimately, haunting. Mapplethorpe seeks the exceptional in each subject: the defined curvature of the body, the balanced symmetry of objects, the unflinching aspects of eroticism. The resulting photographs are sometimes gritty, ever-direct, and always, deeply memorable.

Implicit Tensions discovers the artist’s creative range in the varied subjects and styles of his work. Queens-born, Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was raised in a traditional Catholic household, a background that greatly informed his art in frequent religious references, even in his most raw and provocative pieces. Interested in the arts from his youth, he studied at the Pratt Institute, where he received a BFA in 1970. Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp were early artistic influences on Mapplethorpe’s methods, and he emulated their mixed-media approaches, often combining Polaroids and text into collage.

Mapplethorpe casually happened into the formal art of photography, which would become his defining medium. Friend John McKendry—then curator of prints and photography at The Metropolitan Museum of Art—bought the young artist his first professional camera. Along with collector and lifelong companion Sam Wagstaff, McKendry personally encouraged Mapplethorpe’s work and collector base. Initially, candid pictures of friends and acquaintances were the basis of his portraiture. Early examples include “Candy Darling,” 1973, a multi-image piece showing varied expressions and emotions of the Warhol Factory Superstar and “Patti Smith,” 1976, a famed, vulnerable photo of his dear confidante and muse. During the mid-‘70s, Mapplethorpe also embraced commercial photography, designing album cover images for Smith and the group Television.

By the 1980s, Mapplethorpe’s art evolved with increasing refinement and a focus on studio photography. His captivating images, almost exclusively black-and-white, offer diverse still-life subjects with attention to balanced composition and gradations of shadow and light. This stylized effect can be seen in artworks such as “Calla Lily,” 1986 with Mapplethorpe’s signature perfected aesthetic. Portraits remained a central part of his practice, often featuring other artists, musicians, and celebrities like Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, John Paul Getty III, and Carolina Herrera, as well as members of pornographic and erotic subcultures. All subjects, from high socialites to lowly hustlers, received the same candid, fascinated treatment in his camera’s eye.

The concept of identity played a major role in Mapplethorpe’s portraiture. He openly followed the truth of each sitter, depicting them at their best. Contrasting ideals blend in works like “Lisa Lyon,” 1982, featuring the female bodybuilding champion immortalized in more than 150 of his photographs. Self-images, such as the tough-edged “Self Portrait,” 1980 and the evocative “Self Portrait,” 1985 offer an emotionally intimate view that blurs the lines of masculine and feminine, participant and observer. These images expressively reveal how divergent aspects of identity coexist.

Mapplethorpe also created notorious experimental works: bodies artfully fragmented, singular and intertwined, and more overtly sexual images. “Ajitto,” 1981 and “Phillip Prioleau,”1982 formally echo Renaissance sculpture with a contemporary, exploratory view. Mapplethorpe accelerated his artwork after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, creating a great number of pieces in the last years of his life. His late work and final New Colors exhibit included vibrant hues, diverging from his lifelong practice in black-and-white imagery. These photographs offer a definitive closing chapter to a career and life ended all too soon.

In 1988, four major museums exhibited Mapplethorpe’s photography: the Stedelijk in Amsterdam; the Whitney in New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia; and the National Portrait Gallery in London. These shows were the pinnacle of the artist’s achievements before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989. The ICA retrospective, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment continued posthumously. Its erotic content sparked great controversy at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where the show was cancelled and then relocated to the Washington Project for the Arts. Though the exhibit received record attendance, it also sparking a national debate about government funding and the arts: should public funds censor artistic content? What defines obscenity versus free speech? Where do we place the bounds of creative expression?

Mapplethorpe’s extraordinary photographs established his place in contemporary art history. Thirty years after his death, his unwavering popularity and the ever-increasing value of his work affirm his continued relevance. In 2017, Christie’s auctioned a poignant, defiant self-image near the end of his life, “Self Portrait,” 1988 for £450,000, setting a new record for the most expensive Mapplethorpe photograph ever sold.

With his timeless imagery, and penchant for androgyny and complex identities, Mapplethorpe was a predictive idol of the modern moment. It is no surprise that broader interest in the artist shows no sign of abating. Recent documentaries about the photographer’s life and art were released in 2016 and 2018. Within the fashion space, Helmut Lang’s ‘90’s advertising campaigns prominently feature Mapplethorpe’s portraiture. More recently, Alexander Wang’s chain-infused styles of Spring/Summer 2016 and leather butcher’s aprons of Pre-Fall 2019 pay homage to the artist. Shayne Olivier’s Hood by Air collection presented zippered bondage looks in Autumn/Winter 2016, and pierced aesthetics were front and center in David Koma’s Mugler Pre-Fall 2016. Raf Simons directly referenced Mapplethorpe by imaging his photographs onto clothing in his Spring/Summer 2017 collection. The photographer remains as much of an inspiration to fashion as fashion was to his own artistry.

Within the art world, Mapplethorpe’s legacy continues to resonate. The second phase of Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now will discover his vast influence on contemporary portraiture and self-representation. The show will focus on a collective of artists who have succeeded in his vision, engaging the principles of his work and subjects of the body and individuality. A forerunner in his artwork, Mapplethorpe is remembered for exploring all reaches of creative expression, high and low, with true openness and authenticity.

Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now will be on view in two installments at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from January 25–July 10, 2019 and July 24, 2019–January 5, 2020.

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