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Penises and Parrot Tulips: Robert Mapplethorpe's Most Iconic Works

The late photography legend is the subject of a major traveling retrospective.

This article contains adult content. 

You know an exhibition's going to be stimulating when its signage warns visitors of sexually-explicit content, and in Robert Mapplethorpe's case, the label's not surprising. The legendary photographer continues to leave an impact, long after his untimely death in 1989 from AIDS-related complications at the age of 42. In nearly three decades since, he's built up a bigger and broader oeuvre than one can hope to achieve in a lifetime. Now, a major traveling retrospective shows just how strong Mapplethorpe's legacy actually is.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is comprised of dazzling fractals of Mapplethorpe's wide-bodied career, which don't just fill one, but two museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum. In 2011, both institutions banded together with help from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the Getty Research Institute's Mapplethorpe Archive to compile the bulk of the eponymous artist's life work—only a fraction of which finally makes it into the current exhibition. The result is not only the first major retrospective of both art and archival material since the groundbreaking artist's death, but also two books: Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, and a documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, will premiere on HBO.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, 1983. Promised Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe captured subversive, alternative subcultures while also shining a spotlight on high society and the cult of celebrity. His use of texture, contrast, and composition bear the hallmarks of a true artist, but it is his unexpected subject matter, which ranges from gay erotica, to stylized glamor portraits, and even florals, is all consistently filtered through Mapplethorpe's singular lens, reflecting not only the visionary artist's highly refined aesthetic, but his then-contemporary experience.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Leatherman #1, 1970. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

An understanding of the mechanics of analog photography deepens one's appreciation of Mapplethorpe's final pieces. Mapplethorpe was no less than a genius in his chosen field. Yet, while he will always be known as a photographer, the title The Perfect Medium does not refer to Mapplethorpe's choice of creative discipline as much as to Mapplethorpe himself, because it uncovers his true nature as an interdisciplinary fine artist who not only created photographs, but also made collages, assemblages, sculptures, films, and even jewelry, all with the same compositional eye that the artist himself attributed to his Catholic upbringing and early appreciation of symmetry and the reverential nature of biblical art.

Regardless of how "shocking" some of Mapplethorpe's subjects are, as is the case with his notorious X Portfolio, they all share the same attention to detail as his most seemingly tame images of tulips. Perhaps that's why the X Portfolio is presented in the back of a room at the Getty that is otherwise dedicated to Mapplethorpe's images of flowers, which are also erotic in a strange but obvious way.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Candy Darling, 1972. Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Speaking at a press conference for the exhibitions, Mapplethorpe's youngest brother, Edward, said, "I am probably [Robert's] earliest fan, earliest admirer. From a very early age, I knew there was something special about Robert Mapplethorpe." The artist's surviving sibling continued to describe how Robert was an inspiration for him to study photography as well, and how he was also struck by the title of the exhibit, The Perfect Medium.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Nick, 1977. Promised gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

"The word 'perfect' is something that was so tied to Robert's work, to Robert's legacy," said Edward, not without sincere emotion. "We are very, very fortunate that he was very prolific, and he was determined, every day, to make something. Robert encompassed what an artist is, and he worked diligently every day. I think it's exceptionally rewarding, after all these years, to see this work put together for everyone to see."

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patrice, N.Y.C., 1977, from the X Portfolio. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe, N.Y.C., 1978. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, 1979. Promised gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing, 1984. Promised gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken and Lydia and Tyler, 1985. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas, 1987. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation  © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Parrot Tulips, 1988. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-portrait, 1988. Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is on view March 15 to July 31, 2016 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center and March 20 to July 31, 2016 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

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