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Robert Mapplethorpe, 
Self Portrait, 1980
Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe is remembered in a huge Guggenheim retrospective

The Guggenheim’s celebration of Robert Mapplethorpe is shaping up to be the art event of the year

By Howard Halle
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Few photographers have obtained the mythic stature of Robert Mapplethorpe. His style imparted an austere, almost brutal beauty to often controversial images—among them, a self-portrait in which a bullwhip protrudes from his anus and a series of photographs of naked African-American men that has been criticized for commodifying the black male body.

Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe’s large-format, black-and-white photos (produced, more often than not, within the controlled environs of a studio) reflected his life as a gay artist working in the downtown demimonde of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS New York, a period when the utopian promise of sexual liberation gave way to the fear of plague.

Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe seemed to find a connection between eros and thanatos in almost all his work, from floral still lifes to photos of statues. He was a classicist whose worked sometimes verged on a fascist aesthetic, but his output suggests an unapologetic attitude toward the reaction to his efforts and to the way he lived his life.

Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Indeed, one of his last self-portraits, taken a year before he died from AIDS, shows the gaunt-faced Mapplethorpe clutching a skull-topped cane, a pose that is both infernal and magisterial. The man, the artist and the legend are all recalled in this two-part retrospective that marks the 30th anniversary of his death.

Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

“Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now” is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Jan 25–July 10, 2019, and July 24, 2019–Jan 5, 2020.

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