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Robert Mapplethorpe, A Perfectionist

by Rob Blauwhuis in Theatre, Art & Expo , 04 August 2017

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 10 minuten

In the winter of 2015-2016, a comprehensive exhibition of works by Keith Haring was held at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, and this summer, up to August 27, it will host a grand retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and work. Even though Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) and Haring (1958-1990) had a twelve-year age difference and their artistic visual language is extremely different, there are also striking similarities.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing, 1984Both artists were active in the 1970s and 1980s in New York, at a time the Stonewall riots were still fresh in the collective memory, and in a period in which the gay liberation activism had made it possible that unbridled sexuality reigned supreme in night-life. Both Mapplethorpe and Haring were actively involved in this, and they were not afraid to incorporate this sexuality in their work.

Shortly after moving from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to New York in 1978 to continue his studies at the School of Visual Arts, Haring made a series of cartoon-like “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks” (published in book form in 2016 by Nieves in Zurich). This series lacks the colourful character of the work he soon became world-famous with, but titles such as “Drawing Penises in Front of Tiffany’s,” “Phallic Church Windows 5th Ave.” and “Drawing Penises in Front of the Museum of Modern Art” indicate what, at that time, the twenty-year-old artist was fantasising about. In his life-time and after his death, Mapplethorpe’s fascination with (large) male genitals was indeed controversial at times.

Two years before Haring discovered a phallic paradise in Manhattan, Mapplethorpe had already photographed “Mark Stevens (Mr. 10½).” Although the addition does not leave much to the imagination (10½ inches is almost twenty-seven centimetres), this picture cannot just be seen as thoughtless praise for traditional virile masculinity. Mapplethorpe gave it a certain ironic twist, as Jonathan D Katz argues in the accompanying publication: “the model’s huge penis is posed, like a piece of sculpture, on what is to all intents a plinth; but the photographer rewrites this ostensibly hyperphallic script by dressing Stevens in leather chaps and having him bend over the plinth in such a way as to imply an erotic tendency to sexual passivity. In so doing, any naturalized equation between penis size and masculine domination is put to question, even as the penis itself is held out as an object of autonomous identity.”

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1975Both Mapplethorpe and Haring lost their lives to AIDS. On March 12, 1989, less than a year before his own death, Keith Haring wrote in his journal during a stay in Marrakesh: “Yesterday driving to the mountains I was randomly thinking and daydreaming and wondered to myself about Robert Mapplethorpe. I imagined finding out how he had died. I think I imagined reading it in a newspaper. And I wondered to myself - or I imagined - his funeral with his coffin being carried by six huge muscular black men and then I thought no, maybe he wouldn’t be buried - he’d be cremated. Tonight I opened the ‘Herald Tribune’ and read his obituary. It seems like every time someone I know dies, I know it or feel it subconsciously while it is happening.”

Whether Haring indeed had a premonition is something that will remain unclear, but Mapplethorpe did pass away on March 9, 1989 and was indeed cremated. His ashes were buried in his mother’s grave at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Manhattan Adventures

Mapplethorpe was born into a Catholic family, in the middle-class district of Floral Park in Queens, New York City on November 4, 1946. His father especially was keen to raise his boys as “real men,” which obviously caused the necessary problems with Robert. After completing high school, Mapplethorpe preferred to study elsewhere, but his father convinced him to go to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, in order for Robert to commute between the academy and his parental home.

In an interview, Mapplethorpe later said about his youth: “I come from suburban America. It was a very safe environment and it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave.” He took this step in 1967, cohabiting with Patti Smith, who was his muse for many years and with whom he stayed friends for the rest of his life. To please his father, Mapplethorpe even gave her a ring and told him they were married in California. Meanwhile, however, he was exploring his homosexuality, something he was desperately trying to come to terms with.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1980 Already in 1963, he had discovered the semi-legal sex shops near Times Square, where at one point he saw a pornographic gay magazine. “Pornography” in the 1960S certainly was not as explicit as it would be in the last decades of the twentieth century, but the magazine was packed in cellophane, and the genitals of the cover model were made invisible by black tape. As he was not eighteen yet, Robert could not buy the magazine, but was extremely fascinated by it: “[The magazines] were all sealed, which made them even sexier somehow, because you couldn’t get to see them. A kid gets a certain kind of reaction, which of course once you’ve been exposed to everything you don’t get. I got that feeling in my stomach, it’s not a directly sexual one, it’s something more potent than that. I thought if I could somehow bring that element into art, if I could somehow retain that feeling, I would be doing something that was uniquely my own,” he would later say.

As a teenager however, he simply had to satisfy his curiosity and stole a magazine when he discovered a blind newsdealer. After removing the cellophane and the adhesive tape, he was so excited by what he saw in the magazine that he returned a few days later to steal yet another magazine. Meanwhile, the blind salesman had asked two of his friends to keep an eye on potential thieves. When Robert wanted to leave with the magazine, the salesman’s friends caught him and shouted: “Get the cops!” Robert managed to escape, but was so afraid of his father’s response in case the police were to inform him that his son had been arrested for stealing gay pornography, that he swore to himself, according to his biographer Patricia Morrisroe, “to end his flirtation with homosexuality.”

Photography as Fine Art

Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe, NYC, 1978These good intentions could not last. Some years later, the young artist started experimenting with collages, and at that point began using photos from erotic gay magazines. In 1970, he acquired a Polaroid camera and started making photographs with it, sometimes of a gay-erotic character, which were also incorporated in his collages, as he felt “it was more honest.” Soon he realized that (Polaroid) photos could also be satisfactory as an artistic medium, kick-starting the career that ultimately would bring him world-wide fame.

When Mapplethorpe seriously began to embrace photography, the medium was not generally considered to be a true expression of the fine arts. There was only a very limited number of art galleries that specialized in photography, and the sometimes explicit character of Mapplethorpe’s work made it extremely problematic for gallery owners to have something to do with his work, even when they appreciated it and were subjectively interested in his work, as Patti Smith tells: “Several of them told me, ‘I think the work is really interesting, but how can I exhibit it without making a statement about who I am?’

Eventually, in 1973 the Light Gallery in New York was brave enough to organise an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids. On this occasion, it became clear that Mapplethorpe did not only seek perfection artistically, but that he was not afraid of being provocative from a commercial point of view. He told the gallery owner that an exhibition does not start at entering the gallery, but when the invitation is opened. As people opened the invitation, they saw a naked self-portrait of Mapplethorpe holding a camera, with his penis covered by a dot.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984Two years after this exhibition, Mapplethorpe switched to a Hasselblad camera and started working on the material that would make him world famous. As the books in which Mapplethorpe’s work was published were often thematically compiled, some people are under the impression that his career can be classified in periods. However, a portfolio that was published in 1978 in the Parisian magazine “Creatis: La Photography au Present” already shows that “the whole future sweep of the Mapplethorpe career is in place, technically, aesthetically, and in content featuring leather, flowers, portraits, and blacks,” as former “Drummer” editor Jack Fritscher concludes in “Robert Mapplethorpe: Assault With a Deadly Camera” (1994).

Dutch Recognition

Not only in France, but also in the Netherlands Mapplethorpe had early supporters. One year after he had made his European debut in a Parisian gallery, Galerie Jurka in Amsterdam organised his second European exhibition, opening on May 5, 1979. On this occasion, a beautiful catalogue was published, with an introduction by Rein von der Fuhr. It was the first time Mapplethorpe’s work appeared in book form and was brought to the attention of a larger audience, as the catalogue was not only available in the gallery, but also in some bookstores.

Mapplethorpe returned to Galerie Jurka from January 11, 1980 onwards. On that date, the exhibition “Black Males” was opened, and this time it was accompanied by a catalogue with the same title, containing an essay by Edmund White. White had not yet published his breakthrough novel “A Boy’s Own Story,” but he had already established, especially within the gay world, a reputation as co-author of “The Joy of Gay Sex” (1977).

Just a year before his death Mapplethorpe was back in Amsterdam with an exhibition, but this time not in a modest, private gallery, but at the Stedelijk Museum.

2017 European exhibition at The Kunsthal

After a long absence Mapplethorpe’s work is now again shown in the Netherlands on a large scale in the exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe, A Perfectionist” at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. More than two decades after his death, his work remains controversial and tests the limits of what is artistically possible.

The exhibition offers an impressive survey of his career, from early works in the late 1960s to the art world success he established in the 1980s. More than 200 objects throw new light on his preferred genres: portraiture, self-portraiture, the nude, and still life. The exhibition focuses on what Mapplethorpe called “perfection in form,” which can be seen in his fascination with sexual fetishism as well as in his almost tangible floral petals.

“Robert Mapplethorpe, A Perfectionist” is organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The Kunsthal is delighted to be the only European venue to present this special exhibition.

 “Robert Mapplethorpe, A Perfectionist” can be visited until August 27, 2017 at the Kunsthal, Westzeedijk 341, 3015 AA Rotterdam. Open: Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. See for more information:

[foto credits]
Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Self-Portrait,’ 1975 (© Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation)

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Self-Portrait,’ 1980 (© Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to the J. Paul Getty Trust)
Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Ken Moody and Robert Sherman,’ 1984 (© Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation)
Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Joe, NYC,’ 1978 (© Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the Los Angeles Museum of Art and to the J. Paul Getty Trust)

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Two Men Dancing,’ 1984 (© Promised Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
 Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Patti Smith,’ 1978 (© Jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation)



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