Robert Mapplethorpe first burst to national attention by shoving a bull whip up his ass and taking a self portrait. This image asks the age old question: Is it art? Andres Serrano‘s Piss Christ was also in the debate about what should and should not be called art. Andres Serrano has lived to carry on his calling of making provocative images, while Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography has always been a bit baffling. A recent book of Robert Mapplethorpe Polaroids from the 1970s has been making news as it chronicles his very early work and foreshadows the images that would made him a legend. The book has been released to coincide with an exhibit of the Polaroids at NYC’s Whitney showing May 3rd 2008 to September 7th 2008.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s images, particularly his last images, have an ethereal quality to them. There is a glow around the edges and the feeling that what you are looking at is a moment captured while it is passing. My favorite Mapplethorpe images are the ones in Some Women, simple and arresting, only occasionally shocking. As someone who have never been able to find a single voice, I find it reassuring that Robert Mapplethorpe could swing from boring to offensive to stunning without missing a beat. His sadomasochistic images have very little in common with his portraits of flowers.
It’s been almost twenty years since Robert Mapplethorpe’s death and his images of large penises and breasts that appear architectural in size are mild compared to what is being done now. Fine Art Photography has moved forward along with the rest of the world. Some still go for the shock value, but I like the trend toward black and white landscapes myself.
Robert Mapplethorpe is an icon of the 1980s. Just as we are still talking George Hurrell, we will always be taking about Robert Mapplethorpe. His images are very interesting to look at. And we can still have the debate as to whether or not a photo of a man in a rubber suit counts as art. Serrano’s work has evolved over the years, and it is too bad we didn’t get a chance to see what else Robert Mapplethorpe might have done. Who knows, maybe he would have taken up infrared landscapes.