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A look back at Robert Mapplethorpe’s powerful queer portraits

The most extensive Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective since 1988 exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Robert Mapplethorpe, Phillip Prioleau, 1982. Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Melody (Shoe), 1987. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Credit: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe captured a rich array of subjects during his brief, yet prolific and heavily influential career. Since the 1960s, the self-taught photographer has ignited rigorous debates on race, gender and queer sexuality.

Mapplethorpe’s first major retrospective, The Perfect Moment, was shown in 1988, less than a year before his death from AIDS. Since that time, hundreds of the artist’s works have displayed in galleries the world over.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is now displaying his most extensive retrospective since The Perfect Moment. Following a successful run in Los Angeles, Focus: Perfection — Robert Mapplethorpe, consists of nearly 300 works, including his signature black and white photographs, colour prints and his X, Y and Z portfolios, shown in their entirety. The retrospective is the combination of two exhibitions which presented at the J Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2016 and also showcases archival materials, such as books and album covers.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Self-Portrait, 1985, gelatin silver print, 38.7 × 38.6 cm. Jointly acquired by the J Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by the J Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation.
Used by permission.

Diane Charbonneau is the curator of modern and contemporary arts and photography at the MMFA. She says Mapplethorpe was a key figure in the arts community and was instrumental in documenting queer life in New York City throughout his career.

“If you look back in time, coming out of the ’70s, he’s really at the period of the gay liberation movement that was really marked by people affirming themselves,” she says. “I don’t know how many gay bars there were, but there were different kinds of gay bars that were accessible as well as bathhouses. There was a kind of freedom that was attached to that period.”

The Perfect Moment, while critically lauded, caused moral outrage and called into question notions of decency and queer representation in art in the United States. It showcased Mapplethorpe’s diverse body of work, from floral motifs to his photographic documentation of the gay sadomasochism scene in 1970s New York.

Conservative pundits and advocates for censorship sought to have the show shut down at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. While eventually acquitted, the museum faced obscenity charges for displaying the photographer’s work. While Mapplethorpe’s early career was underscored by controversy during the culture wars of the late ’80s, the artist has posthumously achieved global recognition for his vast body of work and is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Leather Crotch, 1980, gelatin silver print, 35.2 × 35 cm. Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Used by permission.

Ten months before his death, Mapplethorpe founded The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that protects the photographer’s material and he has generously donated to the arts and raised millions for HIV research. The travelling retrospective was, largely, made possible by substantial gifts from the foundation.

The MMFA’s unique retrospective showcases the artist’s diverse range of material and has been curated to be accessible to families as well as museum patrons eager to experience Mapplethorpe’s more controversial work. The exhibit, which includes some of the photographer’s early creations such as jewellery and drawings, illustrates how his work helped to redefine the medium of photography.

Charbonneau says the retrospective is reflective of the MMFA’s broader commitment to diversity and vision of inclusivity.

“Essentially, he’s a formal photographer in his choice of subject matter, the nude, the still life and the portrait. But because of where we are today, we can talk about it in terms of gender, in terms of race and sexuality,” Charbonneau says.  “It embraces the vision and the mandate of the museum, which is to embrace diversity and bring subjects that will engage our visitors.”