Museum  January 25, 2019  Megan D Robinson

“Implicit Tensions”: Mapplethorpe’s Photos Still Provocative 30 Years Later

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (Self Portrait), 1973. Six dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroids), in painted plastic mounts and acrylic frame. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4276

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken and Tyler, 1985. Platinum-palladium print. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 96.4373

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), the now iconic photographer, saw both critical acclaim and controversy in his brief but prolific career. A new exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum celebrates this groundbreaking artist and his legacy: Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, a yearlong exhibition, opens January 25. Known for his starkly beautiful botanical pictures, striking portraits, statuesque nudes and rawly honest self-portraits, Mapplethorpe ignited debate over free speech, censorship and public art funding, with his exploration of taboo homoerotic and sadomasochistic imagery.

The exhibition has two sequential parts. The first phase features highlights from the Guggenheim’s extensive collection of over two hundred photographs and unique objects, gifted by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1993. These include early Polaroids, collages, and mixed-media constructions; iconic, classically erotic photographs of male and female nudes, flowers, and statuary; portraits of artists, celebrities, and acquaintances; explicit depictions of the S&M underground; and some well-known self-portraits.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Self Portrait, 1980
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Self Portrait, 1980. Gelatin silver print. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4289

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois, 1982
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois, 1982. Gelatin silver print. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 96.4367

Robert Mapplethorpe. Calla Lily, 1986
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Calla Lily, 1986. Gelatin silver print. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4302

Robert Mapplethorpe. Pictures / Self Portrait, 1977.
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Pictures / Self Portrait, 1977. Gelatin silver print. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4280

Robert Mapplethorpe. Pictures / Self Portrait, 1977
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Pictures / Self Portrait, 1977. Gelatin silver print. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4280

The second phase explores Mapplethorpe’s enduring impact on the art world, pairing carefully chosen Mapplethorpe photographs with work by contemporary artists. These artists either actively connect with or allude to his work, or view the body and explore identity through the lens of portraiture in similar style to Mapplethorpe. This includes work by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

Born in 1946 in Floral Park, Queens, Mapplethorpe, along with his close friend Patti Smith, was a crucial member of the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s and 80s. In 1989, shortly after his death from AIDS complications, the traveling solo exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment ignited controversy. The exhibition, which some called obscene, had received federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts, and there were calls to cancel the show and return the funds. While his subject matter remains controversial, since his death, Mapplethorpe's work has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions all over the world.

Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now is on view January 25th – July 10, 2019 and July 24, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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