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Robert Mapplethorpe  

b. 1946 Floral Park, Queens, New York, d. 1989 Boston, Massachusetts
photographer
American

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A key figure in late 20th-century photography, Mapplethorpe created work with a distinctive tension between opposites: sacred and profane, mainstream and underground, light and dark. From his early Polaroid portraits, to his fashion photography and later controversial work, Mapplethorpe's photographs are well-ordered and emotionally restrained, with dangerously chaotic and sensuous elements below.

Born in Queens, New York in 1946, Mapplethorpe studied graphic arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before dropping out in 1969. He met the musician, poet, and artist Patti Smith in 1967 and they lived together as intimate and artistic partners until 1974. In 1972, Mapplethorpe met two influential curators. John McKendry gave him his first Polaroid camera, with which he made self-portraits and portraits of his friends and acquaintances in the art world. Samuel Wagstaff, Jr. later became the artist's lover and mentor. By the mid-1970s, Mapplethorpe had acquired a medium format camera and began photographing the world of New York's S and M clubs.

Mapplethorpe refined his style in the early 1980s to create elegant figure studies, delicate floral still lifes, nudes, as well as glamorous celebrity portraits. His preference for simple compositions and a sophisticated use of lighting to articulate subtleties of form distinguished his mature work

His career was successfully championed by pioneering photographs dealer Harry Lunn, who along with Robert Miller and Robert Self, published portfolios of some of the artist's most challenging work. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio was at the center of an American culture war over whether public monies should be used to underwrite art some deemed obscene or blasphemous.

In 1989, at age forty-two, Mapplethorpe died from complications of AIDS. A year earlier, he had established the foundation that protects his work, promotes his legacy, and supports the causes he believed in, such as art programs and HIV/AIDS prevention and care.

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Calla Lily / Mapplethorpe
Calla Lily

American, 1988