LOS ANGELES, CA.- Since his death in 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) has become recognized as one of the most significant artists of the late 20th century. The legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe is rich and complicated, triggering controversy, polarizing critics, and providing inspiration for many artists who followed him. Today, Mapplethorpe stands as an example to emerging photographers who continue to experiment with the boundaries and concepts of the beautiful.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs (J. Paul Getty Museum, March 2016) offers a timely and rewarding examination of his oeuvre and influence. Drawing from the extraordinary collection jointly acquired in 2011 by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, as well as the Mapplethorpe Archive housed at the Getty Research Institute, the authors were given the unique opportunity to explore new resources and present fresh perspectives.
The result is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction to Mapplethorpe's career and legacy, featuring a rich selection of illustrations covering the remarkable range of his photographic work -- from his self-portraits and figure studies to his floral still lifes. Mapplethorpe's best-known images are shown alongside work that has been seldom published or exhibited. Key themes include Mapplethorpe's studio practice, the controversy provoked by the inclusion of his sexually explicit pictures in the 1988-90 retrospective exhibition The Perfect Moment, and the legacy he left behind after his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs presents some of Mapplethorpe's most familiar portraits, including intimate self portraits and those of his long-time benefactor and lover Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., poet-musician Patti Smith, and other members of New York's cultural elite, among them artists David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and Louise Bourgeois, actress Isabella Rossellini and singer-songwriter Deborah Harry. Lisa Lyon, the first World Women's Bodybuilding champion and one of Mapplethorpe's favorite muses, is also featured dressed, undressed and in various guises, ranging from ingénue to dominatrix.
Between 1977 and 1980, Mapplethorpe produced a remarkable body of work that focused on the gay s/m community. The evolution of Mapplethorpe's sex pictures, selections of which are included in this volume, boldly celebrate the gay subculture that sprung up in the 1970s and 80s of which Mapplethorpe was not only an observer but an active participant. Most of the sex images were made in the tightly controlled environment of his artist's studio, and reveal the artist moving closer towards the elegant, formal style that would become his trademark.
Mapplethorpe searched for well-proportioned models and underscored their powerful physical presence through obsessive attention to detail, statuesque poses, and sophisticated lighting. In particular, he was attracted to the color of black skin, and the book includes a number of photographs of African-American models such as Ajitto and Thomas, whom he frequently used to evoke classical themes. Mapplethorpe's Ken and Lydia and Tyler (1985) suggest the ancient trope of the Three Graces through three models of different racial backgrounds.
The book presents four loosely chronological plate sections and five in-depth essays on sexuality and identity. Additional resources include the artist's vast exhibition history, an illustrated chronology of his life and work, and a useful bibliography. All of these elements, beautifully integrated, contribute to what promises to become an indispensable publication of lasting significance and an essential point of focus to Robert Mapplethorpe's work and practice.
This publication is issued on the occasion of the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium on view at both the J. Paul Getty Museum and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from March 15 and March 20, respectively, through July 31, 2016; at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal from September 10, 2016, through January 15, 2017; and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, from October 28, 2017, through February 4, 2018.
A companion publication to Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs entitled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive by Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick, with essays by Patti Smith and Jonathan Weinberg, will also publish in March coinciding with the exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium. The book depicts rarely or never before seen studio files and art from every period and vein of Mapplethorpe's production, including student work, jewelry, sculptures, and commercial assignments.
Additionally, during the run of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium the Getty Museum's Center for Photographs will also feature the exhibition The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs. Wagstaff's impressive collection of photographs that were acquired by the Getty Museum in 1984 is one of the cores of the collection of the Department of Photographs. This exhibition and accompanying publication of the same name is an opportunity to focus on Wagstaff's collection and his role as one of the most important patrons and collectors of photography.
Paul Martineau is associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Britt Salvesen is curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and the Prints and Drawings Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.