1989-03-09

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE, American artist, died on this date (b. 1946); An American photographer, known for his large-scale, highly stylized black & white portraits, photos of flowers and male nudes. The frank, erotic nature of some of the work of his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks. Mapplethorpe made most of his photographs in the studio. Common themes were flowers, especially orchids; portraits of famous individuals, including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry. Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones and Patti Smith (Patti Smith’s portrait  was inspired by Durer’s 1500 self-portrait) and nude works that include homoerotic imagery from classic nudes to BDSM acts.

Mapplethorpe is best known for his Portfolio X series, which sparked national attention because of its explicit content and the funding of the effort by the National Endowment for the Arts, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. The title of this photograph given to it by its creator is Self-Portrait, 1978.

From the late summer of 1990 forward, some commentators writing about the Portfolio X and NEA controversies for audiences unlikely to have extensive prior knowledge of Mr Mapplethorpe’s work refer to this photograph as Indiana Jones & The Tunnel of Doom. Likewise the tryptique Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977-1978, the one involving urination, as Recycled Lemonade and the photograph Helmut and Brooks, N.Y.C, 1978, involving fisting as Iron Fist and others as Into The Wiener Tunnel etc. His photographs of black men have been criticized as exploitative.

Singer Patti Smith writes eloquently and movingly of their early relationship in her 2010 National Book Award-winning book, Just Kids. It can be obtained here.