Throughout his career, Mapplethorpe's work covered a wide range of subjects. He's especially known for his celebrity portraits, particularly those of his lifelong friend Patti Smith. He also produced lush photographs of flowers – including some in colour, a rarity for him – and was fascinated by photographs of statues. But what Mapplethorpe is primarily known for is sex.
In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, BDSM wasn't much discussed in the mainstream media or the respectable art world. Homosexuality was a little more openly discussed, but only in ways that fulfilled certain stereotypes. Mapplethorpe's work shattered these barriers. His work was too powerful and starkly beautiful to be ignored, but too frankly homoerotic to be understood as anything other than pornography. Further driving the point home was that Mapplethorpe often photographed his own partners, even including himself in graphic depictions of sexually charged subjects. Mapplethorpe invested his images of BDSM with stark dignity and even occasionally humour.
Mapplethorpe's erotic work blurred the boundaries between what society considered to be acceptable art and what was thought to be obscene. Indeed, the fact that Mapplethorpe specifically intended his work to be erotic challenged the whole idea of a separation between obscenity and legitimate art. This challenge was one of the things art critics admired about his work.
Art critics weren't the only ones to have an opinions on Mapplethorpe's work, and sadly, his other critics weren't as open-minded as the art establishment. Not that the art establishment was so broad-minded, necessarily. Mapplethorpe understood and played on the duality that meant that some of his work was exhibited in high-end galleries and some of it only in more avant-garde establishment. But it was his increasing critical acclaim that brought his work to the attention of those not well-placed to appreciate it.
In the summer of 1989, a travelling exhibit of Mapplethorpe's work, The Perfect Moment, was touring American museums. This exhibit contained a number of images from the “X Portfolio,” Mapplethorpe's BDSM collection. This included images like his infamous self-portrait with a bullwhip in his anus. By the late 1980s, this wasn't wildly outside what you might find in other avant-garde American photography – except that one exhibit, put on by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., had been partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency of the American government.
Needless to say, George H. W. Bush's America wasn't quite ready for the idea of tax dollars – no matter how small the sum actually was – being spent on an art exhibit they considered obscene. The exhibit turned into the centre of a controversy, with debates in Congress and even protests in the streets. In the end, the exhibit was moved to another museum, where, no doubt helped by newspaper and television coverage of the controversy, it drew in large crowds.
Unfortunately, Mapplethorpe himself was in no position to benefit from the increased fame the controversy had brought him. New York's gay community in the 1980s was being devastated by the AIDS pandemic. Still relatively poorly-understood, the disease claimed thousands of lives each year and would continue doing so until new treatments came on the scene in the 1990s.
Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Following the death of his lover and patron Sam Wagstaff from the disease in 1987, his illness became public knowledge. In and out of hospital, Mapplethorpe barely lived to see the beginning of his burst of national fame. He attended the opening of his show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the summer of 1988 in a wheelchair, holding onto a cane topped with a skull ornament. Less than a year later, in March 1989, he died. He was 42 years old.
Outside the gay and BDSM communities – and outside the community of people who really care about fine art photography, which is perhaps even smaller than the kink world – Mapplethorpe is best known for the political firestorm that erupted around his NEA-funded show. Indeed, he's recently regained some of his political relevance. President Trump's proposed budget completely eliminates funding for the NEA, something conservatives unsuccessfully tried to use his work to achieve. But his lasting legacy will be the way in which he treated sex in his work:
Images Robert Mapplethorpe
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