Robert Mapplethorpe

by Richard Howard

Paperback, 1988




Whitney Museum of Art, (1988)


A retrospective of the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a man known for his steamy and luxurious pictures of nudes, striking portraits and still lifes.

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LibraryThing member baswood
This book of Robert Mapplethorpe's work was published to coincide with an exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of American Art; New York, July 28 through October 1988. Mapplethorpe was ill with AIDs having been diagnosed in September 1986 and only had a few months to live. These 109 plates serve as a fitting retrospective for an artist whose vision encapsulated much that was taking place in the world of art at the time. He was an important maker of images and Marshalls book includes many of his more famous black and white photographs as well as a good representation of his early collages and some later colour photographs. From the late 1970's Mapplethorpe's pictures were regularly to be found in galleries and exhibition spaces, he was an established artist and at the time of his death had secured his place in the artistic canon.

Looking through these pictures I was struck by his desire to achieve a perfect balance of subject and form. The vast majority of the pictures were taken in the studio where the artist has most control and in Mapplethorpe's pictures there is no extraneous detail, his most successful pictures have a satisfying completeness about them as he invites the eye to share exactly what he sees. His early images and collages were influenced by Andy Warhol and it seems as though he was trying to subvert the way we look at pictures. He used found pictures from books and magazines sometimes with material and always framed in such a way that the framing became an important part of the picture. He experimented with polaroid shots spending as much care on their representation in the frame as in the subject matter. Many of these early works featured homo-erotic images which in Mapplethorpe's hands achieve a certain balance and dare I say it; beauty. Mapplethorpe was no voyeur he actively took part in the S&M scene and his pictures have quality about them which can only have come from someone who was fascinated and in love with much of what was going on at the time.

The late 1970's found Mapplethorpe fully at home in the studio taking pictures with a large format camera. He had found his medium for expression and he concentrated on the human form, producing pictures that celebrate the power and the beauty to be found in the male torso. Genitalia were often included and sometimes were a feature of these pictures. His celebrated book of photographic studies of black men mostly naked were perhaps a defining moment of his work at the time. He subverted these images with his studies of the white female body builder Lisa Lyons whose musculature achieves a grace and beauty as powerful as his pictures of black men. His use of studio lighting became an art form in itself as he turned his attention to include still life studies of plants: these are plants taken out of their natural habitat, placed in vases and photographed with such care and attention to their place in the frame that the pictures become things of beauty, but not in any naturalistic way. His plant and flower pictures are almost architectural and just as his pictures of the human body resonate with a power so do these beautifully presented photographs.

Ii is no surprise that his studio work also turned in the direction of portraiture. He took many self portraits always supremely confident in the image that he presents. He dressed or undressed for the part making pictures that are a clear statement of intent; sometimes designed to shock always with style and all with a love for the art of picture making. He took pictures of friends many of whom were active in the world in which he lived, but posing for Mapplethorpe was a serious business, no one naturally smiles as they enter into the world of Mapplethorpe's imagery.

Mapplethorpe demanded that we see his photographs as works of art and looking through this excellent retrospective I think he hit the mark more often than not. Included in the book are three essays one of which by Richard Marshall serves as an excellent introduction to his work placing the artist in context with 1970's and 1980's New York. An essay by Ingrid Sischy takes up some of the themes inherent in the photographs using plates in the book as examples. The essay by Richard Howard titled The Mapplethorpe affect for me lacked clarity, however a Five star book of photographs.
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