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Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe Biography

born New York, NY (USA) 1946 died Boston, MA (USA) 1989

Robert Mapplethorpe was born November 4, 1946, in Floral Park, New York. He left home in 1962 and enrolled at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, in 1963, where he studied painting and sculpture and received his B.F.A. in 1970. During this time, he met artist, poet, and musician Patti Smith. She encouraged his work and posed for numerous portraits when they lived together in Brooklyn and in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, a gathering place for artists, writers, and musicians in the early 1970s.

It was not Mapplethorpe's original intention to be a photographer, and from 1970 to 1974, he mainly made assemblage constructions that incorporate images of men from pornographic magazines with found objects and painting. In order to create his own images for these collages, Mapplethorpe turned to photography, initially using a Polaroid SX-70 camera. Interested in portraiture, Mapplethorpe worked as a staff photographer for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. He also produced album covers for Smith and the group Television, and at the same time photographed socialites and celebrities such as John Paul Getty III and Carolina Herrera.

Two of Mapplethorpe's friends were influential in his continuing exploration of photography as a means of art making. He met John McKendry, Curator of Prints and Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1971. The curator bought Mapplethorpe his first camera and persuaded him to take up photography full-time. Mapplethorpe traveled to Europe for the first time with McKendry, where he was introduced to many of the collectors who later became sitters for portraits. Curator and photography collector Sam Wagstaff, whom he met in 1972, became Mapplethorpe's friend and eventual lover, encouraging the photographer's development, gallery associations, and career course. They remained close until Wagstaff's death in 1986.

Mapplethorpe had his first substantial shows in 1977, both in New York: an exhibition of photographs of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery and one of male nudes and sadomasochistic imagery at the Kitchen. Mapplethorpe's diverse work "homoerotic images, floral still lifes, pictures of children, commissioned portraits, mixed-media sculpture" is united by the constancy of his approach and technique. The surfaces of his prints offer a seemingly endless gradation of blacks and whites, shadow and light, and regardless of subject, his images are both elegant and provocative. In the mid-to-late 1980s, returning to the sculptural use of photography seen in his early assemblages, Mapplethorpe created sensual diptychs and triptychs of photographs printed on fabric and luxurious cloth panels. In 1988, four major exhibitions of his work were organized: by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Mapplethorpe died due to complications from AIDS on March 9, 1989, in Boston.

The Institute of Contemporary Art's retrospective continued to travel after Mapplethorpe's death. Although the exhibition had sparked no controversy at its first two venues, the threat of right-wing objections to the photographs of S/M and homoerotic acts prompted officials at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to cancel the show two weeks before its scheduled opening. The exhibition instead traveled to the Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., where it received record attendance.

Select Timeline

Select Exhibitions

  • 1973 - Polaroids, Light Gallery New York, NY
  • 1976 - Animals, Holly Solomon Gallery New York
  • 1978 - Corcoran Gallery of Art Washington, DC
  • 1978 - Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art California
  • 1978 - Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, CA
  • 1979 - People Watching, Museum of Modern Art New York, NY
  • 1979 - International Center of Photography NY
  • 1983 - New Art, Tate Gallery London, England
  • 1983 - Robert Mapplethorpe 1970-1983, Institute of Contemporary Art London, UK
  • 1986 - Invitation: La Revue Parkett, Centre Nat'l d'Art & de Culture Georges Pompidou Paris, France
  • 1988 - National Portrait Gallery London, England
  • 1988 - Identity: Representations of the Self, Whitney Museum of American Art NY
  • 1988 - First Person Singular: Self Portrait Photography, The High Museum at Georgia-Pacific Center Atlanta, GA
  • 1988 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • 1989 - 150 Years of Photography, National Art Gallery Washington, DC
  • 1989 - Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, PA
  • 1988 - Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY
  • 1990 - The Indomitable Spirit, International Center of Photography, Midtown NY
  • 1991 - Fashion Photography Since 1945, Victoria and Albert Museum London, England
  • 1992 - Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Japan
  • 1994 - Guggenheim Museum New York, NY
  • 1995 - Faces: 1975-1995, Pelham Arts Center Pelham, NY
  • 1996 - Sex and Crime, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Germany
  • 1996 - Robert Mapplethorpe Polaroids, Galerie Stefan Ropke Cologne, Germany
  • 1997 - Konfrontation - Mapplethorpe/Palavrakis, VAU, Berlin, Galerie Stefan Ropke Cologne, Germany
  • 1998 - Karen Mc Cready Fine Art, New York
  • 1998 - Cheim & Read, New York
  • 1998 - Houldsworth Fine Art, London
  • 1998 - Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
  • 1999 - Hamiltons Gallery, London
  • 1999 - Andrea Rosen, New York
  • 1999 - Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta
  • 1999 - Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
  • 2000 - Cheim& Read, New York
  • 2000 - Aktionsforum Praterinsel, Munich
  • 2000 - Senior & Shopmaker, New York
  • 2000 - Patricia Laligant Photography, New York
  • 2000 - Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp
  • 2001 - Galerie Thaddaus Ropac- Salzburg, Salzburg
  • 2001 - Senior & Shopmaker, New York
  • 2001 - Stefan Ropke, Cologne
  • 2002 - Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, Belgium
  • 2002 - Museum of Contemporary Art, Sapporo, Japan, Robert Mapplethorpe Retrospective
  • 2002 - Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
  • 2002 - Flowers, Galerie Stefan Ropke Cologne, Germany
  • 2003 - Eye to Eye: Robert Mapplethorpe selected by Cindy Sherman, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, NY
  • 2003 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto, Canada
  • 2003 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Sculptures and hand painted photographs, asperyjacques, London, England
  • 2004 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Still Life Portraits, Thomasville Cultural Center, Thomasville, GA
  • 2004 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Black Nude Men, Galeria Senda Espai 292, Barcelona, Spain
  • 2004 - The World of Robert Mapplethorpe, Kunst Merano Arte, Merano, Italy
  • 2004 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Self Portraits 1974-1988, Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GA
  • 2004 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Body Parts, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, France
  • 2004 - Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints, Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, Germany
  • 2004 - Nine Favourites, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
  • 2004 - Pictures Pictures, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, CA.
  • 2005 - Sacred and Profane: Robert Mapplethorpe, Fototeca de Cuba, Havana, Cuba
  • 2005 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Alison Jacques Gallery, London, England
  • 2005 - Mapplethorpe's Rooms, Stella Kay Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • 2005 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Galeria Fortes Vilaca, Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • 2005 - Mapplethorpe Neoclassical, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, NY
  • 2005 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Flowers, Galleri Skarsktedt, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 2005 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2005 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Tra Antico e Moderno - Un'antologia, Pallazzina della Promotrice delle Belle Arti, Turin, Italy
  • 2005 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris, France
  • 2006 - Screening of Patti Smith/Still Moving, Tate Modern, London, England
  • 2006 - Pictures, Bernheimer Fine Old Masters, Munich, Germany
  • 2006 - Andy Warhol/Supernova, Art Gallery of Ontario, Ontario, Canada
  • 2006 - Good Vibrations: Le Arti Visive e il Rock, Palazzo delle Papesse Centro Arte Contemporanea, Siena, Italy
  • 2006 - Lifestyles, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland
  • 2006 - The Eighth Square, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
  • 2006 - Id, The Light Factory, Charlotte, NC
  • 2006 - New York, New York: Fifty Years of Art, Architecture, Photography, Film and Video, Grimaldi Forum Monaco, Monaco
  • 2006 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, Austria
  • 2006 - Robert Mapplethorpe, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland
  • 2006 - Robert Mapplethorpe: Lisa Lyon, Baldwin Gallery, Aspen, CO
  • 2006 - Mapplethorpe-Warhol: Celebrity Portraits, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, CA, traveled to: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, NY

Select Artwork

  • Self-Portrait, 1985
  • Flowers, 1982
  • Orchids, 1985
  • Calla Lilly, 1988
  • Patti Smith, 1976
  • Lisa Lyon, 1981
  • Italian Vogue, 1984
  • Lydia Cheng, 1985
  • Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984
  • Ajitto, 1981
  • Christopher Holly, 1981
  • Andy Warhol, 1986
  • Peter Gabriel, 1986
  • Isabella Rosselllini, 1988
  • Lucy Ferry, 1986
  • Female Torso, 1978
  • Mercury, 1987
  • Patti Smith, 1974
  • Bulls Eye, 1970


  • "Do it for Satan. You know you're dirty."
  • "I always thought I was good. That's why it was so frustrating when other people didn't agree."
  • "I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn't. And that's a tough place to be because you're never satisfied."
  • "I became the toast of London. A lot of people I met came from these really decadent families where the married men were gay and no one thought anything about it."
  • "I can't have just anybody assisting me, I need somebody who I can really communicate with."
  • "I feel a little bad about not being with you for your mother's funeral, but those things depress me so."
  • "I had to sell a lot of photographs to make the kind of money a painter made from selling just one painting. I couldn't sit back and hope for the best."
  • "I see things like they've never been seen before. Art is an accurate statement of the time in which it is made."
  • "I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today's existence."
  • "I think I should be a little less concerned with the bizarre aspects of my work if in fact I'm interested in having my work catch on."


  • Pictures: Robert Mapplethorpe - by Robert Mapplethorpe (Author), Ingrid Sischy, Arena Editions (September 1999)
  • Black Book - by Robert Mapplethorpe (Photographer), Ntozake Shange, St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (December 15, 1986)
  • Flowers - by Robert Mapplethorpe, Bulfinch; Rpt edition (May 20, 1993)
  • Robert Mapplethorpe And The Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints - by Robert Mapplethorpe (Author), Germano Celant (Author), Arkady Ippolitov,
  • Mapplethorpe - by Robert Mapplethorpe, Random House; 1st ed edition (October 27, 1992)
  • Robert Mapplethorpe: Spezial Fotografie Portfolio - by Robert Mapplethorpe, Stern Gruner + Jahr AG & Co. (April 2001)

Quick Facts

  • Mapplethorpe made most of his photographs in the studio.
  • Common themes were flowers, especially orchids; portraits of famous individuals, including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith (Patti Smith's portrait was inspired by Durer's 1500 self-portrait) and nude works that include homoerotic imagery from classic nudes to sadistic and masochistic acts.
  • Mapplethorpe's work was regularly displayed at publicly funded exhibitions.
  • When it became known that Mapplethorpe was infected with HIV, the prices for his photos increased dramatically. In December 1988 his photos collected $500,000 each
  • American photographer, known for his large-scale, highly stylized black & white portraits, photos of flowers and male nudes. The frank, erotic nature of some of the work of his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks.


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