Ten Things to Know About Robert Mapplethorpe

Learn about Robert Mapplethorpe's legacy ahead of the Canadian premiere of Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) at Luminato 2019. 

Apr 12, 2019 | BY: UMS Lobby

Self-Portrait, 1988 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


1. Robert Mapplethorpe didn't begin his career as a photographer 

In his early career, Mapplethorpe created assembled constructions and collages. These works tended to be mixed medium, combining painting, found objects, and cut outs of pornographic magazines and religious postcards. He took up photography after the encouragement from his friends John McKendry, a curator, and Sam Wagstaff, a gallery owner and Mapplethorpe’s eventual lover.1

2. His early photography was deeply rooted in 1970's New York 

Mapplethorpe and his close friend and roommate Patti Smith were involved in the 1970s New York music and art scenes, frequenting legendary venues such as Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. Mapplethorpe photographed two iconic album covers of that era: Patti Smith’s; Horses and Television’s; Marquee Moon. During this time, Mapplethorpe also was a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine.2

3. Mapplethorpe's work was often controversial 

During his time of rising popularity, Mapplethorpe photographed the New York’s BDSM scene in which he was involved. With regard to his work, Mapplethorpe stated, “I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before … I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.”3

Mapplethorpe’s work has the power to upend beliefs about black/white, female/male, queer/straight, art/porn, sacred/profane, classical/contemporary, low art/high art, and political/personal.

4. Mapplethorpe was a go-to photographer for celebrity portraits

He shot portraits of Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, Cindy Sherman, Truman Capote, and, of course, himself!4

5. There is a strong sense of classicism throughout his work

Mapplethorpe had an intense focus on balance, harmony, and order. Traces of classical art can be found in his treatment of the body, which was often reminiscent of sculpture. Throughout his career, he also recalled classical composition in his photography of flowers and other still life objects. This often created a tension in his work between the erotic subject matter and his “high art” depictions.

Alistair Butler, 1980 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 

6. A theatrical world premiere 

Triptych: Eyes of One on Another had its full theatrical premiere at UMS on March 15 and 16 (the concert version premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on March 5). In addition to vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and a chamber orchestra, the production will feature large-scale, theatrical projections of Mapplethorpe’s work (which may include graphic, sexually explicit content).

7. Bryce Dessner's Cinncinati connection 

Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1989 collection of photographs at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center courted controversy and censorship trial. Composer Bryce Dessner said “They put art on trial, basically. It was a huge, huge cultural event in the city. It kind of turned on a light for me about a lot of issues.” 

8. A broadening of perspective 

Librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle found profound meaning in Mapplethorpe’s perspective during his college years. 

9. Roomful of Teeth 

The innovative, GRAMMY-winning vocal collective Roomful of Teeth was recently profiled in The New Yorker: “From death metal to alpine yodelling, the experimental group is changing what it means to harmonize.” Take a listen

10. A 30 year reflection 

The premiere of this production took place at The Power Centre, Michigan 30 years after Robert Mapplethorpe’s untimely death from AIDS on March 9, 1989.

This blog post originally appeared on the UMS website on March 5 and was reproduced with permission. 

Experience Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) on June 22 at Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, Canada during Luminato 2019. 


1christies.com ; guggenheim.org




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