Past Collection Highlight - Robert Mapplethorpe

Mapplethorpe Thomas 1986 printed 1988 gelatin silver printAn accomplished American photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe gained widespread notoriety for a selection of explicitly homoerotic images that were included in a museum retrospective exhibition of his work. Those images fueled a Congressional furor about government funding of the arts in 1989, amid heated disagreements about the definitions of art and obscenity and limits on freedom of expression.

In the year this photograph, Thomas, was taken, Mapplethorpe said "my work is about seeing--seeing things like they haven't been seen before." This applies not only to the most controversial images, but to his other major bodies of work: stylized images of flowers, celebrity portraits, and formally composed nudes.

Presentation of the white, female nude is prevalent throughout the history of Western art, but Mapplethorpe offers the opportunity for aesthetic appreciation of the idealized, black, male body. His accentuation of lustrous contours and rich, bronzed tones recalls Edward Weston's female nudes and studies of peppers. Against a solid black ground, the undulating line of the model's back and shoulders dips and curves as a sensuous abstraction. But Mapplethorpe's nudes, titled with the model's name, do not cross entirely into the realm of formal abstraction.

Here, the body's inherent symmetry is invoked by a frontal pose, but then disrupted by one bent arm. Vitality flows through the arc of the right arm, from the muscular shoulder to the firmly planted fist. If symmetrical, this pose would embody potential energy, a taut body coiled over toes and poised for upward movement. However, the left hand covers the head in a self-defensive gesture, so the coiled posture of strength simultaneously recalls a protective fetal position. The model shields his bowed head and torso, perching in careful balance on the slightest footprint. As positioned, the figure communicates both strength and vulnerability.

Thus, the right and left sides of the figure express the complexities and contradictions contained in each of us, or perhaps the disparity between how we perceive others and who they really are inside. The artist's compositional decisions enable us to see his model as both an object of great beauty and a figure of profound humanity.

Karla Niehus
Associate Curator of Exhibitions