Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, known for his large-scale, highly stylized black and white portraits, photos of flowers and naked men. The frank, homosexual eroticism of some of the work of his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks.


Mapplethorpe was born and grew up as a Roman Catholic of English and Irish heritage in Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Floral Park, New York, a neighborhood of Long Island. He received a B.F.A. from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in graphic arts.[1]

Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. In the 1980s he refined his aesthetic, photographing statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe's first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s Sam Wagstaff gave him $500,000 to buy the top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street, where he lived and had his shooting space. He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom.

Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, in a Boston, Massachusetts hospital from complications arising from AIDS; he was 42 years old. His ashes were buried in Queens, New York, in his mother's grave, marked 'Maxey'.

Artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt's Involvment with the Robert Mapplethorpe Scandal in Washington D.C.Edit

  • [6] In June 1989 Pop Artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt became involved with the scandal involving fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The Corcoran Gallery of Art(Museum) in Washington D.C. had agreed to host a solo exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's works without making a stipulation as to what type of subject matter would be used. Mapplethorpe decided to make his famed debut of "sexually suggestive" photographs in Washington D.C., which was a new series that he had explored shortly before his death. The hierarchy of the Corcoran and even certain members of congress were horrified when the works were revealed to them, thus the museum refused to go forth with the exhibit. It was at this time that Lowell Blair Nesbitt stepped forward; he was a long time friend of Mapplethorpe and he revealed that he had a 1,500,000.00 USD bequest to the museum in his will, although, in public statements that caused tremendous press regarding the issue Nesbitt promised that if the museum refused to host the exhibition of the controversial images created by Mapplethorpe he would revoke his bequest. The Corcoran refused and Lowell Blair Nesbitt bequeathed the 1,500,000.00 USD to the Phillips Collection which he cited as an early inspiration to his career when he had worked there as a young man in the position of a night watchman.

After the Corcoran Gallery of Art refused the Mapplethorpe exhibition, a small, non-profit arts organization, the Washington Project for the Arts picked it up and showed the controversial images in their own space on 7th and E Street, NW from July 21 - August 13, 1989.

His workEdit

Mapplethorpe worked primarily in the studio, particularly towards the end of his career. Common subjects include flowers, especially orchids and calla lilies; celebrities, including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith (a Patti Smith portrait [2] from 1986 recalls Albrecht Durer's 1500 self-portrait[3]); homoerotic and BDSM acts (including Coprophagia), and classical nudes. Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio series sparked national attention in the early 1990's when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by National Endowment for the Arts. The portfolio includes some of Mapplethorpe's most explicit imagery, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus.[4] Though his work had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called "nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material."[5] As a result, Mapplethorpe became something of a cause celebre for both sides of the American Culture war. The installation of The Perfect Moment in Cincinnati resulted in the unsuccessful prosecution of the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie, on charges of "pandering obscenity".

His sexually-charged photographs of black men have been criticized as exploitative.[6] Such criticism was the subject of a work by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991-1993). Ligon juxtaposes several of Mapplethorpe's most iconic images of black men appropriated from the 1988 publication, Black Book, with various critical texts to complicate the racial undertones of the imagery.

UCE ControversyEdit

In 1998, the University of Central England was involved in a controversy when a book by Mapplethorpe was confiscated. A final year undergraduate student was writing a paper on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and intended to illustrate the paper with a few photographs. She took the photographs to the local chemist to be developed and the chemist informed West Midlands Police because of the unusual nature of the images. The police confiscated the library book from the student and informed the university that the book would have to be destroyed. If the university agreed to the destruction, no further action would be taken.

The book in question was Mapplethorpe, published by Jonathan Cape 1992. The university Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter Knight, supported by the Senate took the view that the book was a legitimate book for the university library to hold and that the action of the police was a serious infringement of academic freedom. The Vice-Chancellor was interviewed by the police, under caution, with a view to prosecution under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act. This Act defines obscenity as material that is likely to deprave and corrupt. It was used unsuccessfully in the famous Lady Chatterley's Lover trial. Curiously the police were not particularly interested in some of the more notorious images which could have been covered by other legislation. They focused on one particular image, 'Jim and Tom, Sausalito 1977'.

After the interview with the Vice-Chancellor a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service as the Director of Public Prosecutions has to take the decision as to whether or not to proceed with a trial. After a delay of about six months the affair came to an end when Dr Knight was informed by the DPP that no action would be taken as 'there was insufficient evidence to support a successful prosecution on this occasion'. The original book was returned, in a slightly tattered state, and restored to the university library. [7]


In 1996, Patti Smith wrote a book The Coral Sea dedicated to Mapplethorpe.

In 2003, Arena Editions published Autoportrait, a collection of black and white Polaroid self-portraits that Mapplethorpe took between 1971 and 1973. This was the first time these early works became available for widespread viewing since the 1970s.

In 2006, a Mapplethorpe print of Andy Warhol was auctioned for $643,200, making it the 6th most expensive photograph ever sold.

In 2007, American Writer, Director and Producer James Crump Directed the documentary film Black White + Gray, which premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.[1] It explores the influence Curator Sam Wagstaff, Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Musician/Poet Patti Smith had on the 1970's art scene in New York City.

In 2007, Prestel published Mapplethorpe:Polaroids, a collection of 183 of approximately 1,500 existing Mapplethorpe polaroids. This book accompanies an exhibition by the Whitney Museum of American Art in May 2008.

References in popular cultureEdit

  • In "Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy", an episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson accidentally grabs a racy photography book by Robert Mapplethorpe at a bookstore.
  • Wes Anderson's 1996 film Bottle Rocket features a character with the name Bob Mapplethorpe.
  • Mapplethorpe is satirized in the Family Guy episode, "A Picture Is Worth a 1,000 Bucks". In the episode, Mapplethorpe is shown as an artist at an amusement park who draws caricatures. When a child comes to have his caricature drawn, Mapplethorpe asks who the child's favorite athlete is, and proceeds to state that he will draw him defecating on the child's chest.
  • In The Birdcage, Republican Senator Kevin Kealey (Gene Hackman) is told that his daughter's future father in law (Robin Williams) is a cultural attaché, to which he responds: "are they the ones who funded the Mapplethorpe exhibit?"

See alsoEdit


  • Patricia Morrisroe (1995) Robert Mapplethorpe: A Biography (Papermac: London and New York)
  • Arthur C. Danto (1996) Playing with the Edge: the Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California Press: London and Los Angeles)
  • Gary Banham (2002) "Mapplethorpe, Duchamp and the Ends of Photography" Angelaki 7.1
  • Mark Jarzombek. "The Mapplethorpe Trial and the Paradox of its Formalist and Liberal Defense: Sights of Contention," AppendX, No. 2 (Spring 1994), 58-81
  • Allen Ellenzweig (1992), "The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe" (New York: Columbia University Press), ISBN 0231075367


  1. Glueck, Grace. "Fallen Angel", The New York Times, June 25, 1995. Accessed October 14, 2007. "Growing up in a blue-collar precinct of Floral Park and steeped in Catholicism, Mapplethorpe developed -- to his alarm -- an adolescent interest in gay pornographic magazines.... So at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where his father had studied engineering and Robert majored in graphic arts (but stopped short of getting a degree)..."
  4. [1], [2], [3]
  6. [4] [5]
  7. UCE pages on the Mapplethorpe controversy, the page has been deleted so now here via

External linksEdit

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