Guggenheim Museum celebrates Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial art

Thirty years after his death, the Guggenheim Museum will celebrate Robert Mapplethorpe’s art and his impact on contemporary photography with a yearlong exhibition conceived in two sequential parts in the museum’s Mapplethorpe Gallery on Tower Level 4. Robert Mapplethorpe, dead in 1989, was one of the most critically acclaimed yet controversial American artists of the late twentieth century.


Robert Mapplethorpe - Self Portrait, 1980 - Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 35.6 cm - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York - Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation - © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission

After his death, the exhibitions of his works were censored, because they were defined offensive and obscene. If conservative people thought this about the Mapplethorpe’s art, other people claimed freedom of speech and expression. There are even today, many different reactions when the audience look at his works.

The exhibition is entitled Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now and it’s organized by Lauren Hinkson, (Associate Curator, Collections) and Susan Thompson (Associate Curator), with Levi Prombaum (Curatorial Assistance, Collections). It consist of two different parts.

Everything started in 1993, when the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, born in 1988, provided a generous gift to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation of approximately 200 photographs and unique objects, creating one of the most significant repositories in the world of his artwork.

The first phase of the exhibition, from 25 January to 10 July, will feature an installation of highlights from the Guggenheim’s collection, including selections from the artist’s early Polaroids, collages, and mixed-media constructions to his iconic photographs of male and female nudes, homoerotic statuary and exotic flowers. There will be also his highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities, such as his long-life friend Patti Smith’s portrait, or some of his best-known self-portraits.

In this first phase, it will be possible finding his erotic art, that art that makes him famous, with series of sadomasochistic photographs depicting the homosexual culture of New York of that time, his more explicit depictions of couples in extreme erotic practices, his portrayals of black male nudes, and classical nudes of female bodybuilders.


Robert Mapplethorpe - Patti Smith, 1976 - Gelatin silver print, 35.2 x 34.9 cm - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York - Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation - © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

The second part of the exhibition will be from 24 July until 5 January 2020 and it will dedicated to Mapplethorpe’s influence and resounding impact in the world of contemporary portraiture and self-representation. It will featured a selection of contemporary artists from the Guggenheim’s collection who worked directly with Mapplethorpe or were influenced by his work. These artists are Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Catherine Opie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya: their artworks, that refer to Mapplethorpe’s approach to picturing the body and exploring identity through portraiture, will be shown at the exhibition.

The artist has a fundamental role in the history of contemporary art, introducing innovative themes and different aesthetical approach, he’s provocative and (auto)ironic: for the first time, commercial photos of pornographic inclination are placed in a context of artistic forms and techniques. In his works, the boundary between art and sex is blurred and undefined. This yearlong exhibition program will celebrate the full range of Mapplethorpe’s extraordinary artistic contributions and the invaluable gift from Mapplethorpe’s Foundation to the museum.


Robert Mapplethorpe - Ken and Tyler, 1985 - Platinum-palladium print, 59.4 x 50.2 cm - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York - Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation - © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Implicit Tension: Mapplethorpe Now.

Period: January 25, 2019 - July 10, 2019 and July 24, 2019 - January 5, 2020

Opening hours: everyday from 10am to 5.30pm

Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10am to 8pm

Where: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Avenue - New York, NY 10128-0173


- Giulia Zamponi