Robert Mapplethorpe (1946, New York - 1989, Boston) is among the most influential visual artists of the late twentieth century. He was an American photographer, known for his sensitive yet blunt treatment of controversial subject-matter in the large-scale, highly stylized black and white medium of photography. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images of flowers. His most controversial work is that of the underground BDSM scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s of New York City. The homoeroticism of this work fuelled a national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork.
The medium is the message, Mapplethorpe was determined to close the long-enforced gap between photography and art. Mapplethorpe made the camera — the image machine of the Industrial Age — into an ambitious equivalent of a sculptor's chisel and a painter's brush. His figure studies mimic statuary, often ancient Greek or Roman and sometimes Neo-Classical, like the art of the 18th and 19th centuries that looked back at antiquity. Mapplethorpe's flowers — never shown thriving in soil but always cut and composed — are forever at peak bloom, their imminent demise a cautionary picture of inevitable mortality, like a 17th century Dutch still life. Mapplethorpe used camera images as a popular means of reformulating the art of the past. Mapplethorpe, a Modernist through and through, took to heart the motto to "make it new." Reformulating art was how he could invent a place for himself in an indifferent, often hostile world.
Working in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s sexual revolution, he embraced his homosexuality. Self-acceptance may even have contributed to the artist's decision to move away from his youthful interest in painting, sculpture and graphic design and toward photography. After all, camera work had always held second-class status in art's established hierarchy.
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