The Life of Robert Mapplethorpe in 8 Key Moments

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1985 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is known for his distinctive and often provocative black and white photographs of mainly portraiture, flowers and male nudes. However, there is so much more to learn about this photographer’s fascinating life and career! Allow Artsper to show you 8 key moments in Mapplethorpe’s life that shaped this iconic artist.

1. 1946- The Artist’s Birth and Early Years

Sam and Max Sullivan - Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam and Max Sullivan, 1981 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Born in 1946 in Floral Park, New York, Mapplethorpe was the third child of a very religious family of Irish origin. In 1963 he began attending the Pratt Institute where he studied drawing, painting and sculpture. He then moved to Boston, and definitively broke ties with his family to lead a very different life to his strict upbringing.

2. 1967- Meeting Patti Smith

Patti Smith - Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1978 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

While living in New York in 1967, Mapplethorpe found a lifelong muse in singer Patti Smith, who herself went on to become an influential figure in the New York pop punk scene. The pair entered into an intense romantic relationship, living together in the Chelsea Hotel and frequenting the legendary CBGB club, New York’s home of underground rock. However, this relationship was made difficult through their struggles with poverty and Mapplethorpe’s struggle with his sexuality.

Although the couple separated romantically when Mapplethorpe came out as homosexual, Patti remained his close friend and muse until his death. Patti also continued to be inspired by him long after his death, dedicating The Coral Sea, her album and book of the same name, to their relationship and his memory.

3. 1970- Turning to Photography

Self portrait - Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1975 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

1970 marked a turning point in the career of Robert Mapplethorpe, when his passion for photography began. After borrowing a polaroid camera from a friend he began to take photographs, which were mainly portraits of Patti Smith. Three years later these photographs were exhibited at the Light Gallery, setting his career on a new path. Subsequently at the MET, he fell in love with a series of nudes by photographer Stieglitz, which became a source of inspiration to him. Later the same year, thanks to the support of his friend John McKendry, a curator, Mapplethorpe receieved a life-changing grant from the Polaroid Corporation, which guaranteed him unlimited film.

4. Late 1970s- Exploring New York’s Queer Culture

Larry and Bobby Kissing - Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry and Bobby Kissing, 1979 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Toward the end of the 1970s, after having photographed rock stars and underground sex clubs, Mapplethorpe’s art began to demonstrate a growing interest in New York’s queer scene, more specifically sado-masochism. To some extent, his work became inseparable from the circles in which he moved, and at the time understanding it became tied to the niche sociocultural context of queer New York underground culture of the 70s and 80s.

5. 1977- Controversy Boosts His Career

Jim - Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim, Sausalito, 1977 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

His highly provocative art style and subject matter prompted a scandalized reaction from a generally conservative society and art scene. However, the controversy only succeeded in boosting his career. In 1977, he took part in the international exhibition documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany. This once again earned him wider recognition in the art world. In a further success for the artist, 1978 saw the Robert Miller gallery become his exclusive dealer.

6. 1980- Meeting Lisa Lyon

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1980 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

In 1980, he met the second major muse of his career, Lisa Lyon. She was a bodybuilding champion and model of whom Mapplethorpe captured over 150 portraits and nudes. He also worked with her on several other projects, including a photography book called Lady: Lisa Lyon.

7. 1980s- Taking A Mannerist Direction

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ermes, 1988 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

During the artist’s later career the 1980s, his photographs took a turn in a more Mannerist direction. In contrast to his earlier more explicit work, his subject matter began to on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still life images, and more formal portraits of artists and celebrities.

8. 1989- The Artist’s Untimely Death

Robert Mapplethorpe, Parrot Tulips, 1988 ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe had a tragically short life. A victim of the epidemic that deeply affected, and continues to affect, the gay community, the artist died of AIDS in 1989, at the age of 42.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Artistic Legacy

Although his life was so tragically cut short, the impact that the career of this American artist had on art photography and the broader art world cannot be forgotten. It’s thanks to artists like Mapplethorpe that today’s artists continue to innovate, be bold and take risks in their art.