Robert Mapplethorpe: the perfect medium
27 Oct 2017 – 4 Mar 2018See through the eyes of an icon
This comprehensive survey celebrates one of the most renowned photographers of the 20th century. It features over 200 works that reveal Robert Mapplethorpe’s pursuit of what he called ‘perfection in form’.
Organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and J Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Support for the exhibition and its international tour has been provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Unbeknownst to myself, I became a photographer. I never really wanted to be one in art school …
But then I realized that all kinds of things can be done within the context of photography, and it was also the perfect medium, so it seemed, for the seventies and eighties, when everything was so fast.
— Robert Mapplethorpe
New York, New York: introduction
Robert Mapplethorpe once described photography as ‘the perfect medium … for the seventies and eighties, when everything was so fast’.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, New York – as in many other global centres – was going through a vital phase of social and artistic experimentation. Anti-war protests, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and a new push for gay rights, all contributed to a radical transformation of the city while enabling and instigating some of the most exciting art of the late 20th century.
Reflecting the shift from the counter-cultural 1960s to the hedonism and image consciousness of the 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe produced work that was distinctly of its place and time. As his photographs came to visually encapsulate the era, it became apparent that the creative context of New York both made him and was made by him.
Uptown, downtown: the people and places that made Mapplethorpe
I prefer people I know, or at least people I have had conversations with,
because it’s about a relationship, between photographer and subject. I’d like to think ideally I could hang out with the person and ideally maybe have a better experience photographing them.
— Robert Mapplethorpe
Mapplethorpe, photographer: introduction
Though his engineer father had a photographic darkroom at home, photography had never interested the younger Mapplethorpe. Only later would he be drawn to its role in advertising and magazines, the sources of the found images he incorporated into his early collages.
When he first moved from Queens, where he grew up, to Brooklyn to study Graphic Design, Mapplethorpe used whatever he could get his hands on to make art, making drawings and collages out of cheap and accessible things like magazine clippings and scraps of paper. He also continued to make jewellery, having experimented for years while producing gifts for his mother. Both his jewellery – which he would later sell to the Warhol Factory ‘superstars’ – and his new constructions, often betrayed the influence of his Catholic upbringing as well as his interest in the occult and the erotic.
Mapplethorpe’s own personal iconography was forming early, but it wouldn’t be long before photography took over as his chief his aesthetic concern.
From the Polaroid to the fine art print, Mapplethorpe’s search for 'perfection in form’
In 1970, a German documentary film captured the characters of the Chelsea Hotel, including Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, before they moved out of the hotel to a loft a few doors away.
Length: 15:01, Smith and Mapplethorpe appear at 7:57
What he looks for, which could be called Form, is the quiddity or isness of something.
Not the truth about something, but the strongest version of it.
— Susan Sontag
Patti Smith speaks about visiting rock stars such as Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix staying at the Chelsea Hotel, as the ‘big hotels in those days didn’t want rock stars ‘cause they were so mangy-looking’.
Robert Mapplethorpe : The Photographs $59.95 AUDGallery shop
Political legacy: introduction
While he did not intentionally set out to be an explicit advocate for gay rights, Robert Mapplethorpe was a visible member of the New York gay community at a time in the 1970s and 80s when the social and political spheres were undergoing massive change.
In 1969, police raids on the Greenwich Village gay bar The Stonewall Inn, led to riots and protests – some call it an uprising – that many see as the beginning of the gay liberation movement in America. By December 1973 – four years after Stonewall – the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders, but homosexuality was by no means broadly acceptable.
(Though he would return, Mapplethorpe had in fact dropped out of art school because he refused to sit for an exam on a sociology subject as the textbook defined homosexuality as a disease.)
During a period of intense debate and activism around gay rights, any public declaration of homosexuality was a political act. In this context, Mapplethorpe – not only as an openly gay man but also as an artist whose images revealed the complexity of homoerotic desire – was a catalyst for change.