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Robert Mapplethorpe emerged as an artist in New York in the 1970s amid two simultaneous but disparate events: the rise of the market for photography as a fine art, and the explosion of punk and gay cultures. Originally trained in painting and sculpture, Mapplethorpe gravitated toward photography, first making erotic collages in 1969 to 1970 with images cut from magazines, then creating his own photographs using a Polaroid camera. Within a few years he was exhibiting erotic male and female nudes, still lifes of flowers, and celebrity portraits, all made with a large-format camera. By the late 1970s his work had developed into a style that was classical and stylish. He continued to explore explicit homoerotic themes, and his subject matter made his work a lightning rod for the contentious debates on public funding for the visual arts during the 1980s.
Although he occasionally worked with color, Mapplethorpe remained devoted to the minimal elegance of black-and-white photography, using the medium in part as an agent to explore certain paradoxes and binary relationships. In many of his works, for example, the distinction between male and female is problematized. In his two Self Portrait photographs of 1980, the artist blurs his gender identity by appearing in one image in partial drag, his face dramatically made-up, and in another as a sneering, smoking greaser archetype. Juxtaposing conventional signs for man and woman—physical, cosmetic, and sartorial—Mapplethorpe questions established notions of "male" and "female," revealing their status as socially constructed terms. In a similar fashion, Mapplethorpe's 1985 Self Portrait collapses other supposed dualisms by picturing himself with horns—a sign pointing to the concepts of good and evil central to both Christian and Greek mythology and embodied by figures such as Satan, the Bible's fallen angel, and Dionysus, a Greek god associated with hedonism and sexual desire. In other works Mapplethorpe juxtaposes black nudes with emphatically white objects—a shroud, marble statuary, flowers, or, in the case of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman (1984), another male.
In photographs of nude models and sculptural objects such as Apollo (1988) and Italian Devil (1988), Mapplethorpe both literally and formally drew on classical sculpture. The blending of sculpture and photography in his work represents both a classical search for perfection—a word Mapplethorpe used frequently—and an attempt to collapse the two mediums into a single practice. He once claimed, "If I had been born one or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make sculpture."¹
In his haunting Self Portrait of 1988, Mapplethorpe blended sculpture with his own image. Unlike earlier self-portraits in which he assumed various personae such as rocker, leather fetishist, cross-dresser and fashion plate, this photograph, taken about a year before his death due to complications of AIDS, has a more somber mood. The artist's gaunt face peers out from a black background and appears to be floating in space. The seemingly disembodied head simultaneously suggests his physical deterioration and formally echoes the sculpted skull that serves as the handle of his cane. A modern day vanitas image, this work suggests the powerful connection between art and life as well as Mapplethorpe's own transitory existence.
1. Robert Mapplethorpe, in Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, "A Distinctive Vision: The Classical Photography of Robert Mapplethorpe," Archaeology 44, no. 1 (Jan.–Feb. 1991), p. 63.