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Whitney Museum of American Art to Present Polaroids: by Robert Mapplethorpe
Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1972 Monochromatic dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid) , 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 in. (8.3 x 10.8 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; gift, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York .) © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by Permission.

NEW YORK.- A little-known body of early work by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) is presented in Polaroids: Mapplethorpe, opening on May 3, 2008, at the
Whitney Museum of American Art. Curated by Sylvia Wolf, recently named Director of the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the exhibition, features approximately one hundred works – many never exhibited before –including self-portraits, figure studies, still lifes, and portraits of Mapplethorpe’s lovers and friends such as Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, and Marianne Faithfull. It remains on view in the Sondra Gilman Gallery through September 7.

Best-known for the highly stylized and neoclassically inspired works he made between the late 1970s and his death in 1989, Mapplethorpe’s mature work was in fact preceded by an important but largely unknown body of over 1,500 photographs made with Polaroid cameras between 1970 and 1975, when Mapplethorpe was in his twenties. Unlike the carefully controlled images that Mapplethorpe would later come to stage in the studio, the artist’s Polaroids reveal remarkable spontaneity and creativity. Many of these small, intimate photographs convey tenderness and vulnerability, while others depict a toughness and immediacy that would give way in later years to more classical form. In these images, in the words of curator Sylvia Wolf, we can witness “Mapplethorpe learning to see photographically.”

As Mapplethorpe explained in 1988, photography “was the perfect medium, or so it seemed, for the ‘70s and ‘80s, when everything was fast. If I were to make something that took two weeks to do, I’d lose my enthusiasm. It would become an act of labor and the love would be gone.” Polaroid cameras, in particular, provided rapid results, allowing Mapplethorpe to see his photographs as he was making them, which in turn gave free access to feeling and thinking. This visual responsiveness to the moment is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this body of work. The results are disarming pictures that give early evidence of the artist’s avid curiosity about light, composition, and design. Polaroids: Mapplethorpe allows an examination of an important aspect of Mapplethorpe’s career, and provides an invaluable glimpse into the artist’s creative development.

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