“Robert loved art books, especially large-format coffee-table books, which he absorbed rather than read,” writes musician, writer, and artist Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe’s late-60s lover and longtime friend. “We had books on surrealism, Marcel Duchamp, tantric art, erotic art, abstract expressionism, and Michelangelo that we perused time and again, always discovering something new. He used to dream of having such a book of his own one day. It both delights and saddens me to see the magnificent books produced since his death that are emblazoned with the name MAPPLETHORPE on the covers, fulfilling his early dreams.”

Add to those magnificent books two more: Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, published by the Getty Research Institute, and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs, published by The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Each evolved from research on holdings from the Mapplethorpe Foundation that were given to LACMA and the Getty institutions in 2011. And they arrive in conjunction with twinned exhibitions of the artist’s work at LACMA and the Getty alongside a new HBO documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.

This is the greatest flowering of attention to Mapplethorpe’s work since shortly before AIDS cut his life short in 1989 at age 42. In 1988, the Whitney held a major retrospective and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia organized a traveling exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. The two shows came at the height of culture-war discord over $30,000 in National Endowment for the Arts funding. Has such a paltry sum ever generated so many millions in free publicity? Having cultivated controversy over his two decades as a photographer, he died while the debates continued to rage.

If that was Mapplethorpe’s peak moment as an artistic provocateur, this year marks his calmer, unequivocal entry into the permanent American art canon. There are so many Mapplethorpe exhibit banners around Los Angeles at the moment you’d think the Olympics were in town, not a couple shows from a single photographer. As Patti Smith suggests, it’s miserable that he’s not around to enjoy this renown, for whatever else he was, Mapplethorpe was an unabashed glutton for fame.

Indeed, he was highly instrumental in his own posthumous rise for his talent was matched by his commercial and institutional acumen even in the face of death.

In 1988, he established the Foundation in his name to fund AIDS research, support fine-art photography, and preserve his artistic legacy. At the end of his life, Mapplethorpe lit an institutional fuse that’s helped ignite this revival almost 30 years later.

His work looks a bit different now but for the most part even better. These two books, with their sumptuous plates and low-key and concise essays help us appreciate why.

The Archive, edited by the curator Frances Terpak, uses an approachably scrapbook feel to present a thorough and intimate voyage through Mapplethorpe’s influences. The book includes his intricate and trippy drawings; collages; his readymades and art installations; his earliest Polaroids when he discovered that the porn-mag cutouts he’d been collaging weren’t as satisfying to him as photos he created himself; later, more-assured works, often in the square Hasselblad black-and-white format he became identified with; and images and artifacts he collected.

The Photographs is a more traditional photography catalogue, huge and handsome, distinguished beyond the sensational images themselves by insightful introductory essays written by a range of curators, nearly a half dozen in all. In generally accessible and well-paced prose, these authorities escort us through his portraits; figure studies; still lifes; occasional mid-distance landscapes; and, of course, the notorious sex pictures which wedded sadomasochism to classical, iconographic visual traditions.

One is impressed, through the books’ totality of images and texts, by the continuities in Mapplethorpe’s vision. For instance, the by-now famed esthetic equivalence of genitals and flowers in his work was a mid-career gallery talking point and a deliberate strategy to cater to mainstream and alternative markets. But it was also a theme of his early drawings before he even particularly cared about photography. The editors demonstrate too that the altar-like presentation and ritualism of his photos evolved from his earliest sculptures, stemming from his Catholic childhood.

Such insights aren’t new by any means; Mapplethorpe himself discussed them in interviews. But these books connect the dots with expert detail and plentiful examples. The new volumes also make the case that the team of Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff—the latter with a decorated career as a curator and aided by Mapplethorpe to celebrate his homosexuality—helped bring both photography and gay life to public legitimacy in the world of prestige art.

In today’s internet age, the early-90s culture wars seem dated if not quaint. How do we, then, with a little distance, see Mapplethorpe’s late-70s pictures of him or others inserting a bullwhip up a bum or a finger into a urethra? In his essay in The Photographs, Richard Meyer urges us to consider such works within Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre as a whole. These images force us “to consider both a floral still life and an extreme act of sexual pleasure (and pain) in a new light. We see the photographer’s subjects not only through our eyes but also through his.” When such disparate subjects are treated with the same “formal control and severe degree of stylization…we understand that pornography can be art.”

With that realization, Meyer writes, we “have been Mapplethorped.”

Take Mapplethorpe’s infamous 1980 ”Man in Polyester Suit.” It was a major clashing point in the tussles over his 1989 exhibit. With his lover Milton Moore as model, it features an ample phallus emanating from said suit. It is provocative, primally arresting, beautiful, and funny all at once. And if it rubs some conservatives the wrong way, not a problem—they do believe in the free market, don’t they? Then let the market speak—in the case of that image, to the tune of almost half a million dollars at a 2015 Sotheby’s auction.

But as remarkable, in retrospect, as how often Mapplethorpe pushed boundaries is how often he didn’t. His 1979 portrait of Wagstaff, a straightforward, deeply respectful but tender close-cropped closeup, is superb as are, of course, his famed portraits of Patti Smith and many others. Occasional landscapes like a 1979 winter scene of a man sitting against a tree in the snow at water’s edge, or a 1980 shorescape called “Waves,” in which their slow-shutter breaking forms a texture like velvety rope, are gentle and gorgeous. His 1985 still life of hanging grapes is lit subtly and exactly. Mapplethorpe could photograph Legos or your aunt’s bunion and would have made it distinctive. He had an unearthly gifted eye, which he followed fearlessly without regard to how others defined either the pedestrian or the obscene.

And he knew enough art history to self-consciously place himself in it—and then out of it. Will there ever be a more heartbreaking farewell self-portrait than Mapplethorpe’s famed picture with the skull-topped staff? His face is already receding, out of focus with the skull, death, in the foreground.

One can’t help but wonder where his career might have gone had he lived longer. Would he have again chased shock notoriety? Probably not, for he’d already veered away from it in the ’80s and shock has always been a short-game tactic. Would his few and not particularly successful forays into advertising photography have started to work out better? I think so—the world has caught up with his austere visual wit. Would he have fought or ridden the digital tide? The latter, I believe; he was interested in new printing techniques and adventures in color, and might have thrilled to digital collage techniques that mirrored his multimedia forays dating back to student days at Pratt.

Whatever he would have pursued, these books suggest, he would have done so on his own quietly resolute, unwavering terms. We can at least be grateful that he used his too-short time industriously and authentically.

—Alexander C. Kafka


Alexander C. Kafka is a
journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland.