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The Duality of Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) Flowers, 1984 (Lot 128, Estimate $15,000-25,000)

Among the highlights in Skinner’s September 27 Fine Prints & Photographs auction are three flower studies by Robert Mapplethorpe whose extensive and provocative body of work has established him as one of the most important artists of the 20th-century. Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in Floral Park, Queens. He studied drawing, painting, and sculpture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and began using a Polaroid camera in 1970 to produce photographs that could be incorporated into mixed-media collages and assemblage constructions including magazine imagery and found objects. In 1975 he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera, which he used to make portraits of friends and acquaintances, as well as socialites and celebrities like John Paul Getty III and Carolina Herrera. He worked as a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and produced album covers for his close friend and muse Patti Smith and the group Television.

In addition to his studio portraits, Mapplethorpe pursued a number of seemingly disparate themes, including female nudes, sadomasochistic and homoerotic images, and floral still lifes. Remarkable for their technical expertise and formal mastery, he made photographs that simultaneously challenge and observe classical aesthetic standards. What unites his diverse subjects is the constancy of his approach. Each print demonstrates an infinite gradation of blacks, whites, and grays with rich interplays of shadow and light. “My whole point is to transcend the subject…,” said Mapplethorpe. “Go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting, all around, reaches a certain point of perfection.”

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) Calla Lily, 1988 (129, Estimate $20,000-30,000)

Regardless of the subject, his images are both elegant and suggestive. This duality reflects the photographer’s double persona of downtown provocateur and high society portraitist. This is particularly true of his photographs of flowers, including Tulip (Lot 127, $15,000-25,000), Flowers (Lot 128, $15,000-25,000), and Calla Lily (Lot 129, $20,000-30,000), which draw on a rich history of artists’ depictions of flora while also displaying an intense and alluring sensuality. The delicate shapes and veins of the flowers and leaves are brought to life by Mapplethorpe’s expert use of lighting, creating exquisite compositions that fulfill the artist’s obsession with beauty and perfection.

In 1988, major exhibitions of Mapplethorpe’s 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. The Institute of Contemporary Art’s retrospective was supposed to travel to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but the artist’s photographs of sadomasochistic and homoerotic acts drew objections, and officials canceled the show two weeks before it was to open. The exhibition was ultimately shown at the Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., where it received record attendance.

Mapplethorpe died due to complications from AIDS on March 9, 1989, in Boston.

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