Image 1 / 7: Robert Mapplethorpe. Untitled (Sam Wagstaff).
Image 2 / 7: Robert Mapplethorpe. Untitled.
Image 3 / 7: Robert Mapplethorpe. Untitled (Patti Smith).
Image 4 / 7: Robert Mapplethorpe. Untitled (self-portrait).
Image 5 / 7: Polaroids: Mapplethorpe. (installation view).
Image 6 / 7: Polaroids: Mapplethorpe. (installation view).
Image 7 / 7: Polaroids: Mapplethorpe. (installation view).
Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit photographs of male nudes, produced between the late 1970s and his death in 1989, made him one of the most notorious photographers of the 1980s and a lightning rod for criticism by social and political conservatives. These highly stylized, neoclassically inspired works did not emerge fully formed, however. Mapplethorpe’s mature work was preceded by a largely unknown body of over 1,500 photographs made with Polaroid materials, which spans the six-year period from 1970 to 1975.
This exhibition brought together ninety of Mapplethorpe’s early Polaroids, many never exhibited before. Included were self-portraits, figure studies, still lifes, and portraits of lovers and friends such as Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, and Marianne Faithfull. Many of these small, intimate photographs convey tenderness and vulnerability. Others depict a toughness and immediacy that would give way in later years to more classical form. Unlike the highly crafted images Mapplethorpe staged in the studio and became famous for, these disarming pictures are marked by spontaneity and invention. Together they offer insight into the artist’s creative development and reveal his pure delight in seeing at a formative time in his career.