Robert Mapplethorpe

(1946 - 1986)

LAMA set the auction record for Self Portrait (1985) by Robert Mapplethorpe in the October 12, 2014 Modern Art & Design Auction with Lot 333, which realized $87,500.

About The Artist


Visionary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe immersed himself in the fringes of society and the underworld of sex during the seventies and eighties. He socialized and worked with artists, musicians, pornographic actors, members of the gay community, and initiates of the S&M underground to create large-scale, often shocking images that are electric with sexual taboos, yet balanced by an undeniable beauty, a classical composition, and the black-and-white format. His perceived role as a provocateur belies his humble roots—speaking of his youth in Floral Park, Queens, he said: “I come from a very suburban America. It was a very safe environment and it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave.” Mapplethorpe studied painting, drawing, and sculpture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but found his ultimate medium in photography when he was gifted a Polaroid camera in 1972 by John McKendry, the curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His early Polaroids were the subject of his first solo gallery show in 1973, though he soon moved on to use a Hasselblad medium-format camera.

In addition to his controversial, sexually explicit works, Mapplethorpe photographed a slew of celebrities in highly formal portraits that he came to know through his own rising star. From 1969-1974, Mapplethorpe lived with poet and eventual rock and roll musician Patti Smith. Most of their time was spent at the Chelsea Hotel, a legendary hotbed of struggling artists, writers, and musicians. Mapplethorpe and Smith encouraged each other’s talents, and the complicated friendship that formed between them is now the stuff of legend. His portrait of her, Patti Smith (1975/1995), would grace her first rock album cover. In the 1980’s, Mapplethorpe photographed Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, William S. Burroughs, Roy Lichtenstein, Grace Jones, Willem de Kooning, and many others. In his photographic inquiry, Mapplethorpe often used himself as a subject, creating self-portraits in many guises: clothed, nude, and in drag.

Mapplethorpe also began creating pristine still lifes of flowers in his studio during the 1980’s. Like the floral works of Georgia O’Keefe and Lowell Nesbitt, these intimate, sumptuous shots of calla lilies, tulips, orchids, and anemones invite sexual interpretation. The flower works of the late 1980s could also be read as memento mori, reminders of the brevity of life and imminence of death, as Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in October of 1986 and became increasingly sick thereafter. In 1988, the artist founded the nonprofit Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, with the mission of overseeing his extensive portfolio of work and supporting medical research in AIDS and HIV. Before his passing in 1989 from AIDS-related complications, Mapplethorpe was honored with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The artist’s work is widely held in major museums around the world, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City and the Tate, London. Mapplethorpe’s groundbreaking work continues to be frequently featured in current museum and gallery exhibitions.


“Biography.” The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Web. 5 Sept 2014.
“In Focus: Mapplethorpe.” The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013. Web. 5 Sept 2014.

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