The Whitney Museum‘s current exhibition offers a telling glimpse into photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s artistic development. Mapplethorpe, who became controversial because of his S&M inspired photographs in the 80s, helped bring beauty back into the art dialogue. Influenced by Andy Warhol‘s cultural connoisseurship and classical perceptions of beauty, his sleekly formal images were at once traditional and culturally relevant.
When his lover, collector and curator Sam Wagstaff, gave him a Polaroid camera in 1975, Mapplethorpe’s photographic eye began to flourish. The polaroids that Mapplethorpe took in the later 1970s have the haunting, composed quality that came to characterize his work. But they are also clearly experimental. The nearly 100 photographs in the Whitney exhibition represent an array of technical and compositional explorations. Mapplethorpe’s romanticized images of Patti Smith differ from his portraits of celebrities with whom he had a more distant relationship and his own self-portraits experiment with riskier subject-camera relationships.
Mapplethorpe received a BFA from Pratt Institute in the early 1970s and spent most of his career in New York City. In 1987, he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to help fund photographers and fight aids. He died in 1989, from complications related to AIDS. Mapplethorpe: Polaroids at the Whitney Museum continues through September 7, 2008.