Robert Mapplethorpe as Seen Through Fashion


In his lifetime, Robert Mapplethorpe experimented with a variety of mediums and subjects from heartbreakingly delicate floral portraiture to provocatively classic sculpture and even celebrity head shots. But perhaps the artist’s most endearing work is his most intimate series: nude and erotic black and white photography that captured New York’s BDSM subculture in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Leather, love, beauty, shame, blackness, masculinity, and kink were the key themes Mapplethorpe explored, and the artist—who famously photographed himself with a bullwhip protruding from his rectum—often called his own work “pornographic.” But rather than obscenities for shock value, Mapplethorpe’s images were formally conceived and incredibly complex. Highly emotive, their viewings summon an inhibited discussion of taboo and beauty. As longtime collaborator Patti Smith wrote of the artist in Just Kids:Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity, and enviable nobility…He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it.” While interest in Mapplethorpe’s work has recently resurged (partly in thanks due to a two-part exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum this year), his influence on fashion in particular has been long-lasting. On today, what would have been his 73rd birthday, CR MEN reflects on the most Mapplethorpe moments since his passing on March 9, 1989.

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