Born in Queens to a middle-class Catholic family, Robert Mapplethorpe rose to prominence in the New York City art world of the 1970s. Though he had worked in other media like sculpture and collage he took to photography as soon as he began shooting Polaroids and his talent developed quickly. He explored his sexuality through his photographs of NYC’s gay party scene and, pairing classical aesthetics with violently erotic content, produced images of startling rawness—a thrilling counterpoint to the preceding decade of minimalist painting and sculpture. His influence continues to be felt in both commercial and art photography. If sex doesn’t shock like it once did, Mapplethorpe is one reason why. Even in fashion, he casts a shadow—Raf Simons’ Spring/Summer 2017 collection is a collaborative effort with the Mapplethorpe Foundation and makes use of dozens of his photographs.
Mapplethorpe’s artistic interests stretched beyond sex, and he accomplished a great deal with other subjects, as well. He was a sought-after portraitist, shooting celebrities of all stripes, and in his studio practice pursued his obsession with formal perfection with his studies of flowers and nude figures. "Focus: Perfection—Robert Mapplethorpe," a major retrospective now on display at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, offers a comprehensive overview of Mapplethorpe’s career, paying equal attention to the sex photos, the portraits, and sculptural stills.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith met in 1967, and their relationship, detailed in Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids, proved formative for both.
As both lovers and friends, Mapplethorpe and Smith pushed and enabled each other artistically. Mapplethorpe developed his technique as a photographer shooting Smith, and his portraits of her, many of which were used as cover art for her albums, played a role in shaping her public persona as musician and poet—ask someone to picture Patti Smith and it is likely that a Mapplethorpe photo will be the first thing that comes to mind.
Mapplethorpe began actively exploring his homosexuality in the early 1970s and threw himself headlong into New York City’s gay S&M culture. Transfixed by its rituals and regalia, he produced photographs featuring its participants that ranged from straightforward portraiture to elaborate, hardcore tableau. The infamous X Portfolio stands out in the latter category, a series depicting a variety of unorthodox sex acts. Mapplethorpe was no documentarian, though—his photos presented a new world of his creation, all the leather, latex, blood, and urine filtered through his measured, sumptuous classicism. Here, the intensity of his subject matter was transmuted through careful staging and lighting into deliberate, fantastical stillness.