Playing with constructed images of self and cultural phenomena, Robert Mapplethorpe’s challenging self-portraits were an influential and essential part of the 1970’s New York arts scene. Now, the artist’s work in the medium is documented through eleven photographs at Skarstedt Gallery currently on view through June 15th. The photographs are extremely personal explorations that the artist took of himself periodically throughout his life, meant to explore different aspects of his own identity, as he captures himself in a variety of states and moods.
Born in 1946 in Queens, Mapplethorpe created self-portraits consistently throughout his career. In the early 1970s, he experimented with Poloroid photography and collage before turning to more modern methods. As he further explored his medium, Mapplethorpe became known for his portrayal of homosexuality and gay subculture, and the images he captured were known for their extremely high level of technical expertise, their formality of form, and their controversial content. His work was exhibited widely throughout the US and Europe, and his work continues to be shown in major institutions around the world.
In a few early self-portraits, Mapplethorpe investigates the concept of gender, in particular his own gender identity. Three of the portraits on view, made in 1980, depict him as a Teddy Boy of the 1960’s, in partial drag with make up, and an homage to Marcel Duchamp‘s female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy. Through these works, Mapplethorpe intended to question the notions of “male” and “female,” portraying himself with the ability to take on a variety of different shades between dichotomous positions and identities.
In a 1983 portrait, Mapplethorpe illustrates a tense relationship he had with religion, dressing up in a leather jacket, and posing with a rifle in front of a pentagram symbol, known to be the sign of the devil. Taken in reference to a 1974 photograph of Patty Hearst, where she is posing with a rifle in front of the symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Mapplethorpe has chosen to point to himself as a rebel soldier fighting for his ‘sinful’ beliefs. The idea of sin and the devil is later explored in a 1985 portrait where he poses as a seductive, evil character perhaps referring to the Greek Dionysus, who is associated with hedonism and sexual desire.
In 1986, Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS, during which time he revealed himself most vulnerably through his photographs. For the first time, Mapplethorpe began photographing himself without an overarching role, revealing himself without any costume, wearing all black and facing the camera directly holding a skull headed cane. Entitled Self Portrait (with cane), his last photograph depicted the ominous skull. In 1988, the Whitney Museum of American Art held his first major American museum retrospective, and one year later Mapplethorpe died in Boston (1989). Before his death, Mapplethorpe established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, promoting photography and museums that exhibit photography, as well as funding medical research for HIV and AIDS.
Capturing a powerful selection of images from throughout his career, Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portraits will remain on view at the Skarstedt Gallery through June 15th.
Exhibition Page [Skarstedt Gallery]