by Lowell Warren
I first read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids when I was seventeen. Just Kids chronicles Smith’s relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe after they meet as twenty-one year olds in late 1960s New York and become friends, artists, lovers, and soulmates. I’d always been a fan of her music (Horses was one of my favorite albums as a teenager), but it wasn’t until reading her book that I was introduced to Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most controversial artists of the twentieth century.
Robert Mapplethorpe grew up in Queens, New York and studied graphic arts at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In the late 1960s, around the time he met Smith, he snapped his first photographs on a Polaroid camera and quickly fell in love with photography.
Mapplethorpe was obsessed with perfection. He sought immaculate beauty in form without imperfection and throughout his artistic career captured breath-taking images of flowers, architecture and the human body. His attention to light, geometry, composition, and detail was exquisite. Working almost exclusively in black and white, he probed binaries like light and dark, softness and roughness, and masculinity versus femininity.
Mapplethorpe is well known for his celebrity portraits, in which he worked to capture the true essence of the subject. His portraits possess incredible personality. When I look at them, it’s as if I’m seeing these icons on deeper levels than they are portrayed in the media. These images are minimal but impactful, gorgeous yet mundane and deeply human. They are honest, sometimes humorous, and always beautiful.
But what Mapplethorpe is most remembered for are his more controversial works: his depictions of New York’s underground BDSM scene. His photographs of bondage, sex, and leather were shocking then and are still shocking to viewers today. In 2018 museum curator David Ross visited UMF to give a talk about his career. He described how he was once assigned to curate an exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work, a task so controversial that the last art director to put on the show was arrested, and over the course of the few months the photographs were on display, Ross had to give 104 interviews defending the work.
These images cause so much uproar because to the average viewer they appear dangerous, sinful, and taboo. People think these pictures are horrific, meant only to cause outrage and make the viewer uncomfortable and upset, but this isn’t true. To me, these images are about examining love to the fullest extreme. BDSM requires intense trust between partners, and I like to think of Mapplethorpe’s works as a study on how people can and do love each other in nontraditional ways.