Mapplethorpe’s photographs have become the defining representations of the New York avant-garde in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In Smith’s words, they are the ‘perfect New York City mix of leather boys, drag queens, socialites, rock and roll kids and art collectors.’ Together with his images of the sadomasochistic underworld and his extraordinarily explicit work of the late ‘70s, his work would challenge conservative, heterosexual preconceptions of beauty and become some of the most controversial and important photographs of the late 20th century.
Mapplethorpe was born in New York in 1946 and studied at the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn. Initially, his work took the form of Surrealist-inspired collages influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. But in 1970, he began experimenting with Polaroid and, three years later, the Light Gallery in New York held a show of his work.
After 1975, he began working with a Hasselblad, producing the iconic 1975 album cover for Smith’s Horses, as well as a string of portraits of their famous friends, including David Hockney (1976) and Debbie Harry (1978).
By the late ‘70s, he was deeply immersed in the study of the human form and the sadomasochistic community, creating sexually explicit pictures such as those of his X Portfolio (1978), which would continue to court controversy long after his death with their shocking exploration of the lines between beauty, art and pornography.
By the 1980s, his work had softened. His portraits of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, and his tender sculptural nudes and portraits for The Black Book (1986), culminated in the moving series of self-portraits he took between 1986 and 1988 recording his declining health with AIDS. One of these self portraits realised a world auction record for Mapplethorpe at Christie’s in 2017, selling for £548,750.
In 1988, a retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work, The Perfect Moment, opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. As it toured, the exhibition sparked national controversy around the issues of censorship, artistic freedom and public funding for the arts. Mapplethorpe died in 1989.