Robert Mapplethorpe at Graphicstudio

Header image: Robert Mapplethorpe, Tampa Orchid, 1986.
Photogravure and screenprint with aluminum glitter appliqué. 21 1/2 x 35 1/4 inches. Edition of 60.

Robert Mapplethorpe is the subject of much renewed interest as the J. Paul Getty Museum and LACMA present complementary exhibitions which form Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium. This retrospective in two parts coincides with the release of HBO Pictures documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. These events revive the controversy that was central to Mapplethorpe’s artistic practice, but we are also reminded of Mapplethorpe’s great skill as a photographer. His initial work with Graphicstudio was to explore a nearly forgotten photographic process called photogravure, now one of Graphicstudio’s signature processes. Mapplethorpe’s editions focus on subjects he is most known for: portraiture and the figure, in his series of images of Ken Moody, and flowers, in his three photogravures on paper or silk collé.

Ruth E. Fine, curator for the National Gallery of Art, explored the work of Robert Mapplethorpe at Graphicstudio in the catalogue for Graphicstudio: Contemporary Art from the Collaborative Workshop at the University of South Florida, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC from September 15, 1991 to January 5, 1992. As usual, her research is thorough and covers many details of Mapplethorpe’s process.

The work is very direct. I try not to have anything in the picture that is questionable. I don’t want anything to come in at an angle that isn’t supposed to come in at an angle.

Robert Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988

Robert Mapplethorpe was raised in Queens, a middle child in a Catholic family from which he was later somewhat estranged. He attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1963 to 1970, taking courses in painting, drawing, and sculpture, with no intention at that time of becoming a photographer. During the 1960s he and poet/musician Patti Smith became close friends, living together for several years, part of that time at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Mapplethorpe produced collages, and his jewelry designs attracted a potential financial backer, but he chose not to continue in that direction. During this period he had also developed an interest in experimental film, exemplified by his feature role in Sandy Daley’s Robert Having His Nipple Pierced (1970).

Mapplethorpe had discovered the shops and bookstores on 42nd Street as a teenage art student, and they had a profound effect on his work. His initial interest in photography was, in part, an outgrowth of the collages he had been constructing with images from pornographic magazines. With his first camera, a Polaroid SX-70 provided by the late curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John McKendry, Mapplethorpe was able to produce photographic images of his own. Later he would acquire a 4-by-5-inch camera, and finally a Hasselblad. Throughout his career, Mapplethorpe used a variety of photographic processes, including photogravure, Polaroid, platinum prints on paper and linen, cibachrome, and dye transfer. He did not have a strong interest in darkroom processes, so he worked closely with his technician to obtain the look he wanted in his work.

Mapplethorpe produced photographs for liquor advertisements as well as for fashion and interior design publications, and he was known for his portraits of entertainment and art world celebrities. During the 1970s he was the staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and his photographs appeared in journals such as Vogue and Esquire. His last commissioned portrait was of U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop for Time magazine, taken less than two months before the artist’s death. Mapplethorpe was an avid collector of photography, arts and crafts pottery, and furniture (which he also designed). Books featuring his photographs include Certain People: A Book of Portraits (Pasadena, Twelvetrees Press, 1985), and 50 New York Artists by Richard Marshall (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1986).

mapplethorpe exhibition opening

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (invitation to Light Gallery opening), 1973. Embossed gelatin silver print with adhesive dot and Polaroid film sleeve. 4 1/8 x 5 1/5 inches. Collection of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Mapplethorpe’s first one-man exhibition was held in 1973 at the Light Gallery, New York. Major exhibitions of his work have been held at the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia (1978), Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (1978), International Center of Photography, New York (1979), Van Reekum Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands (1980), Kunstverein, Frankfurt am Main (1981), Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans (1982), Musée national d’art modern, Cemtre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1983), Institute of Contemporary Art, London (1983), Centro di Documentazione di Palazzo Fortuny, Venice (1983), Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (1984), Australian Center for Contemporary Art , South Yarra, Victoria, and Melbourne (1986), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1988), National Portrait Gallery, London (1988), and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1988). In 1988 the artist established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation with the dual purpose of providing funds for AIDS research and for the visual arts.

Untitled 1

Ken Moody (nude with red background), 1985
Color photogravure and screenprint on Arches Cover paper
30 ¼ x 24 7/8 inches
Edition 60; 1 BAT; 2 PP; 1 PrP; 1 GP; 1 USFP; 12 AP
Collaboration: Deli Sacilotto with Nick Conroy, George Holzer, Patrick Lindhardt, Donald Saff, David Yager

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography can be grouped into three broad categories: portraits, still life (particularly images of cut flowers), and the figure (including homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes). Particularly in his later images the quality of light, his investigation of texture and sculptural form, and his interest in culturally charged subject matter all bind his work in these genres into a cohesive artistic whole. As Patti Smith expressed it, “each photograph a still from life. each photograph a select and subversive work shot from a beautifully corrupt agent of god.”1

Ken Moody (nude with red background) is one of five images of black men Mapplethorpe produced as photogravures at Graphicstudio in 1985, the first prints in this medium produced by the workshop. The project was undertaken by Deli Sacilotto, with whom Mapplethorpe had worked previously in gravure; the plates were executed in New York and the editions printed in Tampa. Four of the five prints in the series were single-color photogravures. Sacilotto stated recently, however, that Mapplethorpe “wanted each one to be slightly different–not the usual techniques. He suggested hand-watercolor. We got to talking about flocking in the background, which we ended up using in one of the prints [Ken Moody (nude with black background)].”2 The hand-coloring was executed according to the artist’s specifications by a U.S.F. graduate student.

According to Sacilotto, Ken Moody (nude with red background), printed in three colors, is “one of the few, if not the only, full-color hand-printed photogravure in existence. I don’t know if anybody else has done that. It involves process color–red, yellow, blue, printed in that order. Of course, the registration problem was extremely difficult. We worked with dampened paper and tremendous pressure, so if you get slight expansion or slight mis-registration it would throw it out entirely. We ended up printing at least 140 [impressions] in order to get 80 good prints.”

Untitled 2Ken Moody (nude with yellow background), 1985.
Color photogravure and screenprint on Arches Cover paper. 30 x 24 3/4 inches. Edition of 60.

Untitled 3Ken Moody (nude with apple), 1985.
Photogravure and watercolor on Arches Cover paper. 30 x 24 3/4 inches. Edition of 60.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s Mapplethorpe produced a number of studies of the black male nude, leading to the 1986 book, Black Book.3 Asked why he chose the black nude as a subject, he responded: “I was attracted, visually. That’s the only reason I photographed them. But once I started, I realized there’s a whole gap of visual things. There have been great photographs of naked black men in the history of photography, but they are very rare. Some of my favorite pictures happen to be pictures of black men.”4 Mapplethorpe’s traditional art background at Pratt Institute is evident in his classical treatment of the nude. Though he is quoted as having described the instruction he received there as “old-fashioned and extremely academic,” he also acknowledged the importance of his study of the figure: “The best education for a photographer is art school and drawing from the figure … Drawing from a live model has helped me envision what I have envisioned.”5

In Ken Moody (nude with red background) Mapplethorpe isolated the black male figure, against a vibrant red ground that darkens in tone toward the edges. A silver border, screenprinted around the perimeter of the composition inside the plate line, confines the color and reflects the artist’s long-standing interest in framing and the formal structure of his images as objects. The mannered pose and use of the backdrop celebrates the artifice of the studio environment. Space is indeterminate. The distance between subject and ethereal red background is unclear. The figure’s back twists gracefully, as his arms, bent at the elbow and raised above his head, each outline a triangle of red. The sparseness of the highly structured composition and the asymmetrical yet exactingly balanced form of the model underscore the strength and solidity of the figure.

Untitled 4Ken Moody (nude with leaf), 1985.
Photogravure and watercolor on Arches Cover paper. 30 x 24 3/4 inches. Edition of 60.

The corporeality of the figure, a hallmark of Mapplethorpe’s nudes, is defined through the interplay of light and shadow, emphasizing the musculature of the arms and back. Mapplethorpe suggested in fact that if he “had been born one hundred or two hundred years ago, [he] might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make sculpture.”6 Shimmering highlights reveal the texture of the skin as well as the form of the figure at the thigh, the buttocks, the small of the back, along the backbone and shoulder blades, at the back of the head, and culminating with the right thumb. The luminescent glow of the saturated red surrounding the upper torso and head further enriches the deep skin tones of the model.

Stemming from the Western academic tradition of the nude in art, Ken Moody (nude with red background) is nonetheless an uncommon rendering of the subject. The print reflects Mapplethorpe’s ability to create images that are loaded with cultural overtones and elicit multiple, intense, and conflicting responses from the viewer. Depending on one’s point of view, the black man so rendered may be seen either as elevated (vital and empowered), or as exploited (as an object, a stereotype of a sexual creature, and/or a noble savage). In apparent paradox, his imagery may be thought objectionable either because it threatens the status quo or because it seems to be a product of it. Mapplethorpe’s images demand an emotional response from the viewer that reflects back on our culture, suggesting that the ambiguity is not inherent in the subject itself but rooted in society’s biases and preconceptions.7

Untitled 5Ken Moody (nude with black background), 1985.
Photogravure with watercolor and flocking on Arches Cover paper. 30 x 24 3/4 inches. Edition of 60.

  1. Smith 1977, 33.
  2. Sacilotto, conversation with Fine, 25 September 1990. The following quotation is also from this discussion.
  3. Published in New York, at St. Martin’s Press, with a foreword by Ntozake Shange.
  4. Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988, 29.
  5. Mapplethorpe, in Larson 1983, 87.
  6. Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988, 27.
  7. Morgan 1987, 121-122, discusses the audience response to Mapplethorpe’s work.

Irises colle

Irises, 1986-1987
Photogravure on White Somerset Satin paper
45 1/16 x 38 3/8 inches
Edition: 30; 1 BAT; 2 PP; 2PrP; 1 GP; 1 NGAP; 1 USFP; 15 AP
Collaboration: Deli Sacilotto with Greg Burnet, Patrick Foy, George Holzer, Donald Saff

Maybe I experiment a little more with flowers and inanimate objects because you don’t have to worry about the subject being sensitive or worry about the personality. I don’t think I see differently just because the subject changes.

Robert Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988

Mapplethorpe’s passion for twentieth-century art glass and pottery has been well publicized, but if one had not heard of it, one could deduce it from his photographs of flowers. Many of his images, including two of the Graphicstudio photogravures, feature the pure, elegant forms of vases that were in the artist’s own collection. In Irises Mapplethorpe has captured the iridescent surface of an Aurene glass vase crisply silhouetted against a background flooded with light. Hyacinth features a ceramic pot.1 As is characteristic of Mapplethorpe’s compositions, Irises is organized around a subtle geometry. The square format is bisected by the vertical edge of the light pattern on the wall. The shelf provides a horizontal counterbalance. The symmetricality of the vase is echoed in the balanced, fanlike arrangement of the irises. The interplay of the triangular shapes that define the vase, the flowers, and the pattern of light is anchored by the merging of the shadowed silhouette of the vase with the darkened edge of the shelf. Even the shadows of the irises on the wall supply a visual weight critical to the composition’s stability: “with flowers, I can always juggle things around. It can take two hours to just set up the lights … If I click when I’m doing a day of flowers, I can get three or four pictures in one day … I get flowers sent to me, and I have to shoot them that day. Sometimes I bring a friend who’s an art director to make it easier.”2

Constructed of light and shadow, the forms in Irises manifest a sculptural solidity that is typical of Mapplethorpe’s work. The masterful manipulation of light yields a pristine clarity and stillness that has also become a signature of his style. Here he captures the luminosity of glass, as distinct from the light-absorbing quality of the pottery in Hyacinth. Light defines the individual petals of the flowers and creates a multitude of delicate gray undertones. These are beautifully achieved through the photogravure process, which is capable of imparting a gauzy atmospheric quality through the subtle grain of the aquatint ground.

The shallow pictorial space, only as wide as the shelf, is animated by light; and Mapplethorpe’s use of sidelighting, which has been compared to Vermeer’s, imparts an almost mystical aura.3 Mapplethorpe’s attention to light was eloquently described by his friend Patti Smith as early as 1977, ten years before Irises was produced: “Light too is tenderly manipulated. nothing is left to chance. like Jackson Pollock he believes there are no such things as accidents. and like Cocteau he believes that light has no license of escape when summoned for a work of promise. light as imposing as granite. braids tapestry a trapezoid of light. the pale bronze planes of Brancusi or silvers and shadows lacing a textured wall. light which falls on the art not the artist. light as the subject itself.”4

  1. See Christie’s, New York, sale 6930, 31 October 1989, lot nos. 103, 104, and 105 (ill. P. 59), for examples of Aurene glass that had been in Mapplethorpe’s collection; and lot 347, for examples of ceramic ware in his collection (ill. P. 137). For further discussion of Mapplethorpe’s collection, see “The Perfect Pot: A Celebrated Photographer Brings His Ceramic Collection into Focus” (photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe) Art & Antiques (Sept. 1986), 86-89.
  2. Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988, 25.
  3. Boudon 1977, 7, makes reference to Vermeer in the contect of Mapplethorpe’s use of light.
  4. Smith 1977, 13.

Hyacinth colle

Hyacinth, 1986-1987
Photogravure on silk collé (China silk on 638 g/m2 cold-pressed Saunders Waterford paper)
45 ¼ x 38 3/8 inches
Edition: 27; 1 BAT; 1 PP; 1 NGAP; 1 GP; 1 USFP; 2 AP
Collaboration: Deli Sacilotto with Greg Burnett, Patrick Foy, George Holzer, Donald Saff

Perfection means you don’t question anything about the photograph. There are certain pictures I’ve taken in which you really can’t move that leaf or that hand. It’s where it should be, and you can’t say it could have been there … In the best of my pictures, there’s nothing to question–it’s just there. And that’s what I try to do.

Robert Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988

In Hyacinth, as in Irises, Mapplethorpe achieves a Mondrian-like balance of compositional forces. The rigid horizontal line of the shelf is counterbalanced by the strict verticality of the band of light on the wall. The consistent diagonal patterning within the shaft of light, as it strikes the surfaces of the plant, pot, and wall, acts as a unifying force, and the pot–located off-center–is visually balanced by the hyacinth bloom that leans to the left in the opposite direction of the diagonal streaks of light. A bright highlight on the rim of the pot finds a counterpoint in the sliver of light that strikes the front edge of the shelf to the left of the pot.

In Hyacinth Mapplethorpe manipulates light to achieve a subtler effect than the frozen quality of the light in Irises. The top surface of the shelf is not as reflective, The light pattern on the wall is subdues. The light striking the hyacinth blooms is much softer than that on the irises; individual petals are not as sharply defined. The softness of the illumination is further enhanced by the warmth of the creamy undertone of the silk on which the image has been printed. The sheen of the fabric imparts a richness to the surface that is not attainable on paper. Light reflects off the textured surface of the fabric through the ink so that even the blackest areas glisten.

Mapplethorpe was fascinated by the effects possible with silk collé, a process described in cat. 36, and he had each of the three Graphicstudio flower photogravures produced in a silk collé edition as well as in an edition on paper. The interrelationship of fabric with pictorial imagery had been a particular and abiding concern of Mapplethorpe’s, as may be seen in numerous works of the late 1970s.1 His silk collé prints may be viewed as an extension of his interest in integrating photographic images with fabric panels, mirrors, and frames. In 1987, the same year the Graphicstudio prints were completed, Mapplethorpe executed a number of platinum prints on linen.2

  1. Marshall 1988, 13, discusses Mapplethorpe’s use of fabrics in his works of the 1970s.
  2. Marshall 1988, 15, discusses the platinum prints onlinen, some of which are reproduced in that catalogue.

Orchid, 1986-1987
Photogravure on Arches Cover paper
45 1/8 x 38 1/8 inches
Edition: 30; 1 BAT; 2 PP; 2 PrP; 1 GP; 1 NGAP; 1 USFP; 11 AP
Collaboration: Deli Sacilotto with Greg Burnet, Patrick Foy, George Holzer, Donald Saff

It’s funny, but I don’t even like flowers very much. They’re something to photograph, and I’d rather have the photograph than the flowers. When I’ve photographed them, I’ll take them out of the studio and put them in my living environment, and feel they’re not right–there’s not enough space around them.

Robert Mapplethorpe, in Evans 1984

The space in which Mapplethorpe’s Orchid exists is at once airless and yet heavy with atmosphere, tranquil and yet unsettling. When compared with the style of the other two flower images produced as photogravures at Graphicstudio (cats. 46, 47), the iconic quality of Orchid is underscored. Mapplethorpe has eliminated the vase and any sense of spatial orientation. The flower looms large, willfully projecting itself into the picture plane. Mapplethorpe maximizes the natural symmetry of the plant, yet the slight bend in the stem, disrupting that symmetry and suggesting both delicacy and dignity, is the mainstay of the composition. The soft, grainy texture created by the aquatint ground evokes the velvety, tactile, palpable, fleshlike quality of actual petals.

Prior to his experience at Graphicstudio, Mapplethorpe had worked with Deli Sacilotto on a portfolio of ten photogravures, also of flowers.1 His photographs of flowers are often well suited to the photogravure process, because, as Sacilotto has explained: “The ideal photographic positive for photogravure has a carefully graduated range of tonalities with good shadow detail, the middle and dark tones should be well defined and not too dense or a single continuous tone will result in these areas.”2

It is frequently noted that Mapplethorpe’s flower images can be interpreted as sexual metaphors, and indeed his flowers, like his nudes (see cat. 45), are both provocative and benign. Mapplethorpe himself explained that his flowers “don’t look like anyone else’s flowers. They have a certain archness to them, a certain edge that flowers generally do not have.”3 Although there is some suggestion of that archness in the erect posture of Orchid, it is perhaps better seen in the phallic stalks of Hyacinth (cat. 47). Flowers, which have often been associated with female sexuality (most often in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe), here evoke male sexuality, confronting cultural stereotypes regarding the definition of feminine and masculine. Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic and homoerotic imagery has received far more publicity than his flowers, but the flowers have attracted considerable attention from photography aficianados.4

  1. The portfolio was copublished by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery and Sacilotto’s Iris Editions in 1983, and the following appeared in PCN 14, no. 5 (Nov.-Dec. 1983), 175: “Many of his favorites are here–tulips, of course, lilies, and bay’s breath–each a formal study of light, shadow, and shape. As always, Mapplethorpe’s understanding of photographic history tells in his own work, and the series projects not the aggressive sexuality of his photographs of flowers but the quiet grace and tonal delicacy possible in photogravure.”
  2. Sacilotto 1982, 108.
  3. Mapplethorpe, in Kardon 1988, 25.
  4. See Tully 1989, C1 and C6, in which the following was noted regarding the Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, sale 5921, 1 Nov. 1989, lot 748: “The most expensive single lot, ‘Floral Still Life’–a trio of photogravures sold for $60,500. The stunning and dramatically lit close-ups of an orchid, a hyacinth and a vase of irises were purchased by an unidentified American collector … According to [Paris-based dealer Harry] Lunn, the edition of floral still lifes that sold today for approximately $20,000 per image was originally offered for $3,500 in 1987.” The images were the silk collé versions of the Graphicstudio photogravures: Orchid, Irises, and Hyacinth.

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