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(1946 – 1989), USA

Robert Mapplethorpe Biography

Robert Mapplethorpe's photography is instantly recognisable. Harking back to classical ideals of the gendered body, his powerful and provocative portraits of friends and acquaintances have made him one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

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Captured in formats ranging from 20" x 24" colour Polaroids, photogravures, platinum prints on paper and linen, Cibachrome, and dye transfer colour prints, Robert Mapplethorpe's subjects also comprise still lives, especially of orchids and calla lilies, along with children and statues. It is the photographs of his contemporaries, however—such as Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and Grace Jones—for which he is most well-known. Often containing erotic content, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs have been cited as emancipatory by LGBT activists, though they endured much controversy throughout his lifetime.

Born in Queens in New York in 1946, Robert Mapplethorpe received a BFA from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1963, where he had studied painting, drawing, and sculpture. It was the purchase of a Polaroid camera in 1970 that launched Mapplethorpe's photography practice, also allowing him to continue his multimedia experimentations with collage. In 1973, Light Gallery in New York hosted his first solo exhibition with a collection of Polaroid photographs. In 1975, Mapplethorpe transitioned to medium-format photography, using a Hasselblad camera to capture figures active in New York's underground scene, from musicians and artists to pornographic film stars.

Throughout the 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe furthered his technique and experience in commercial projects that included album cover art for musicians and photographs for Interview magazine, run by Andy Warhol. One of these musicians was Patti Smith—a long-term collaborator and lover, for whom Mapplethorpe created the imagery on her albums Horses in 1975, Waves in 1979—by which time the two artists were no longer romantically involved—and Dream of Life in 1988. In another collaborative instance, Andy Warhol introduced actress, singer, songwriter, and model Grace Jones to Mapplethorpe, who captured her prior to her performance at Paradise Garage in 1984, covered in bold white markings that were painted on her body by Keith Haring.

Inspired by the work of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Mapplethorpe also captured many photographs of children in a manner that provided contrast to the staged images of adults. The inability to direct the children resulted in more playful images, but of no less formal beauty to his other photographs—all of which were guided by a search for 'perfection in form'. This pursuit is most pertinently conveyed in his photographs of the human figure, working with the muscular bodies of individuals such as Lisa Lyon—the first World Women's Body Building Champion—and dancer Derrick Cross to create sculptural renderings of the human body.

In 1986, Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. Up until his death in 1989, the artist produced many self-portraits reflecting on life, mortality, and identity. In Self Portrait of 1988, for instance, the artist defiantly grasps a skull-adorned cane—his face receding into the black image plane, staring directly forward. Prior to his death, Mapplethorpe received his first large-scale institutional exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and set up the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to support photography and AIDS- and HIV-related research.

Biography by Sherry Paik Ocula | 2020

Exhibition view: Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Mapplethorpe: More Life, Kukje Gallery K2, Seoul (18 February–28 March 2021). Courtesy Kukje Gallery.

Robert Mapplethorpe Featured Artworks

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Watermelon with Knife by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeWatermelon with Knife, 1985Silver gelatin
50.8 x 40.64 cm
Kukje Gallery Contact Gallery
Bacchus by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeBacchus, 1988Gelatin silver print
61 x 50.8 cm
Fortes D'Aloia & Gabriel Enquire
UNTITLED (SELF PORTRAIT) by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeUNTITLED (SELF PORTRAIT), 1973Polaroid
8.3 x 10.8 cm
Cheim & Read Contact Gallery
Lily by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeLily, 1979Silver gelatin print
50.2 x 40.3 cm
Galerie Thomas Schulte Contact Gallery
Tulips by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeTulips, 1988Silver gelatin print
19 1/4 x 19 1/4 inches
Huxley-Parlour Contact Gallery
Alistair Butler by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeAlistair Butler, 1980Silver gelatin print
40.6 x 50.8 cm
Xavier Hufkens Contact Gallery
Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeLisa Lyon, 1981Gelatin silver print, printed 1981
20 x 16 inches
Bruce Silverstein Contact Gallery
Leaf by Robert Mapplethorpe contemporary artwork
Robert MapplethorpeLeaf, 1989Gelatin silver print
61 x 50.8 cm
Cheim & Read Contact Gallery

Robert Mapplethorpe Current & Recent Exhibitions

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Contemporary art exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Mapplethorpe: More Life at Kukje Gallery K2 (Seoul) and Busan
Open Now
18 February–28 March 2021 Robert Mapplethorpe Robert Mapplethorpe: More Life Kukje Gallery K2 (Seoul) and BusanSeoul
Contemporary art exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe, X Y Z Portfolios at Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
Closed
14 March–9 May 2020 Robert Mapplethorpe X Y Z Portfolios Galerie Thomas SchulteBerlin
Contemporary art exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe, Selected by Robert Wilson at Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
Closed
7 March–9 May 2020 Robert Mapplethorpe Selected by Robert Wilson Galerie Thomas SchulteBerlin

Robert Mapplethorpe Represented By

Fortes D'Aloia & Gabriel contemporary art gallery in São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil Fortes D'Aloia & Gabriel São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro
Xavier Hufkens contemporary art gallery in 6 rue St-Georges, Brussels, Belgium Xavier Hufkens Brussels

Robert Mapplethorpe In Ocula Magazine

Ten Decades, Nine Works From Art Basel's OVR:20c Ocula News Ten Decades, Nine Works From Art Basel's OVR:20c London, 27 October 2020

The digital showcase of 20th century art takes place from 28–31 October.

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German Galleries Reopen After Lockdown Ocula News German Galleries Reopen After Lockdown London, 23 April 2020

Galleries in Germany have cautiously reopened their doors, while those in other parts of Europe expect to remain closed for weeks to come.

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Robert Mapplethorpe In Related Press

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Pulled into Robert Mapplethorpe’s Vortex of Voyeurism Related Press Pulled into Robert Mapplethorpe’s Vortex of Voyeurism 29 March 2019, Hyperallergic

'Where did you learn about this artist?' asked the dubious women to her well-heeled husband as she peered ever closer into a photograph of a leather daddy pissing into the mouth of another man. 'Magazines, movies, posters,' the husband mumbled. 'He's pretty famous.' The woman shrugged. 'I've never heard of him before,' she said before turning to...

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Bodily Perfection Related Press Bodily Perfection 9 April 2017, Aesthetica

The life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), one of the most influential artists and photographers of the 20th century, will be examined by Kunsthal Rotterdam this summer. Opening more than two decades after his death, the show focuses on key works that remain controversial and test the limits of what is artistically possible. a...

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Art Gallery of NSW: Warhol. Mapplethorpe and Australian women focus of 2017 program Related Press Art Gallery of NSW: Warhol. Mapplethorpe and Australian women focus of 2017 program 20 October 2016, The Guardian

A major new Andy Warhol exhibition, a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography and work by modernist artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith are among the highlights of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 2017 program, which was announced on Tuesday.

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Jenny Holzer & Mapplethorpe works go on show in a hospital Related Press Jenny Holzer & Mapplethorpe works go on show in a hospital 17 October 2016, Dazed Digital

An immersive, site-specific exhibition titled Human Condition is currently taking up residency at a former hospital in West Adams, Los Angeles – once known as Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center. Opening in 1971, it was the first Black-owned hospital in the California city, running until the neighbourhood’s decline and revelations...

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