IN THE 30 YEARS since his death, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) has become a cultural icon. Born in Floral Park, Queens, and earning a Bachelor's of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, Mapplethorpe is one of the most-critically acclaimed and controversial American artists of the late 20th century, widely known for daring imagery that deliberately transgresses social mores, and for the censorship debates that transpired around his work in the U.S. during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
At the outset of his artistic career, Mapplethorpe did not intend to become a photographer. However, after he was given Polaroid and Hasselblad cameras by friends and mentors, he began taking pictures and came to see the possibilities offered by the medium's immediacy, eventually becoming convinced that "photography maybe could be art."
From his earliest experiments with the medium, Mapplethorpe positioned himself as both a master practitioner and a nimble subject of the camera's gaze, striving to produce photographic objects that unquestionably would be understood as fine art. He created images with competing meanings that mined implicit tensions within histories of art--the photographer-subject relationship, and representations of identity --developing a body of work that continues to challenge and captivate viewers to this day.
The exhibition "Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now" honors the groundbreaking work and sustained legacy of the photographer, presenting an overview of his rich yet relatively short career, with works made between 1970 and 1988, the year before the artist died from AIDS-related complications.
In 1993, the Solomon It Guggenheim Museum received a gift of approximately 200 photographs and unique objects from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, initiating the museum's photography collection. Selected from the Guggenheim's holdings, this presentation includes Mapplethorpe's early Polamids, collages, and mixed-media constructions; iconic, classicizing photographs of male and female nudes; floral still lifes; portraits of artists, celebrities, and acquaintances; explicit depictions of New York's underground S&M scene; and searingly honest self-portraits.
Another phase of the exhibition will address the artist's resounding impact on the field of contemporary portraiture and self-representation, aiming to reflect the many complex conversations surrounding Mapplethorpe's work that have arisen over the past three decades. In addition to a focused selection of his photographs, this second phase also will feature contemporary artists from the Guggenheim's collection who either actively engage with and reference Mapplethorpe's work or whose approach to picturing the body and exploring identity through portraiture finds resonances with his formal and social strategies.
Within Mapplethorpe's body of work, a consistent, rigorously formal approach produced images with starkly different content. "My interest was to open people's eyes, get them to realize anything can be acceptable," he said in an interview. "It's not what it is, it's the way it's photographed." Most famously, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mapplethorpe produced three distinct series of photographs, each consisting of 13 gelatin silver prints. He named the series--which feature S&M portraits, floral still lifes, and black male nudes--the X, Y, and Z Portfolios, respectively, to emphasize their formal continuity.
In "Lowell Smith," "Tulips," and "Cock," for instance, three disparate subjects are similarly framed through dynamic compositional choices. Each is arranged to emphasize the contrasting light and dark tones of various geometric planes that structure the square-format images. Taken together, these photographs suggest a fundamental interchangeability between the varied subjects Mapplethorpe placed before his lens.
In 1972, Mapplethorpe met the art collector and former curator Sam Wagstaff, who gave the artist a Hasselblad medium-format camera for Christmas that year, which soon supplanted the Polaroid that curator John McKendry of the Metropolitan Museum of Art had given Mapplethorpe the year prior. Both men played an essential role in the artist's education and connected him with cultural figures in New York, some of whom became Mapplethorpe's subjects.
In the mid 1970s, working with individuals or duos posed full-figure within environmental settings, the artist produced several portraits that experimented with the symmetry and geometry of the Hasselblad's perfectly square format images. In one work, painter David Hockney and curator Henry Geldzahler lounge on a bench at Fire Island, their figures framed by the worn boardwalks and vertical wood paneling characteristic of the island's architecture.
In another, composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson assume similar poses in adjacent chairs. Yet, the composition of the...