“Mapplethorpe: Polaroids”

Mapplethorpe. Untitled (self-portrait). 1973/75.

Photo: Collection of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used without permission.

Today, Mapplethorpe probably is best known for his lush black-and-white photographs of flowers, celebrities—and male nudes engaged in sadomasochism, which fueled debates about public funding for the arts. He produced the 97 works featured in the Block Museum of Art’s exhibition “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” years before the controversies. But senior curator Debora Wood tells us by phone that these rarely seen instant photos—selected from more than 1,500 the artist created between 1970 and 1975—“give a wonderful sense of how Robert’s ideas formed very early on, for what would be the major themes of his work.”

In 1970, Mapplethorpe borrowed a Polaroid camera from a neighbor at the Chelsea Hotel, intending to incorporate his pictures into homoerotic collages. Soon, however, he became more interested in the photos themselves, as Sylvia Wolf explains in the “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” catalog. (Wolf curated the exhibition for New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.) The artist took Polaroids of Smith, Wagstaff, famous acquaintances such as David Hockney and Marianne Faithfull, still lifes and nudes. In the spring of 1972, the Polaroid Corporation began supplying him with free film and equipment through its Artist Support Program, which also gave grants to William Wegman, Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg.

In the exhibition catalog, Wolf admits that even Mapplethorpe took too many Polaroids “of unremarkable subjects and uninteresting stuff.” These flaws are more than made up for, though, by his knack for lighting and composition, the medium’s exciting immediacy and the charisma of muses like Smith—and the handsome artist himself. “[The Polaroids] are so beautiful, and they’re so intimate because of their small scale, that they’re very large works in their power of communication,” says Wood.

In 2007, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation donated one of the artist’s Polaroid self-portraits (pictured) to the Block; seeing it, and the other instant photos owned by the Foundation, made Wood determined to host the Whitney’s exhibition. For her, the show speaks to the Block’s ongoing effort to strengthen its photography collection. “This is really where we see the mission of the Block Museum,” Wood says, since the museum specializes in “reproducible art forms.” According to Wood, the Block already had “an excellent number of documentary photographs,” but until the museum acquired Mapplethorpe’s Polaroid, it had “no examples of an artist using photography as an artistic means” to communicate a particular idea. To Wood, Mapplethorpe’s work symbolizes “this changing moment in the culture in America and how [it] views and thinks about photography”—a moment that occurred largely because of Wagstaff, who with Mapplethorpe’s help amassed one of the most important photography collections in the world.

The Block is making up for lost time: Recent acquisitions include a gelatin silver print by Mapplethorpe, Polaroids and other photos by Andy Warhol—all currently on view—and two photos by contemporary Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. The museum’s certainly in better shape than the Polaroid Corporation, which stopped making film in February 2008 and filed for bankruptcy in December—foundering just as “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” proves its technology is irreplaceable.

“Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” runs through April 5 at the Block Museum of Art. To see more sexy snapshots, click here.

90 thoughts on ““Mapplethorpe: Polaroids”

  1. Sheila Ryan Post author

    A few years ago I was back in touch with the First Boyfriend. When I wrote him an email message about heading out to work on a cold Chicago morning wearing my skirt-and-stockings work get-up and a man’s beaver coat and moosehide mukluks, he flashed onto an erotic fantasy about the “Iroquois Virgin”, she who is featured in the opening of Beautiful Losers.

  2. Sheila Ryan Post author

    Maybe it’s not that I am lukewarm about Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s just that I’ve grown lukewarm about guys who are hot for Leonard Cohen.

  3. Phil Bebbington

    I don’t know, a guy tries to get some work done and then the thread explodes! Hell, where do I start?

    1. Tom Waits
    2. Liquorice
    big gap
    3. Leonard Cohen
    even bigger gap
    4. Robert Mapplethorpe

  4. Phil Bebbington

    If anything happens to Tom Waits I intend worshipping at the altar of Liquorice probably for ever – I do need Oolong tea with it really and if I’m being picky a fair skinned maiden.

  5. Lucy Foley

    Yes, there’s a common tea in the south of France, I think it’s liquorice and mint, maybe? Anyway, on one of my several stop trips in 2007, I was going from Aix – Marseille – Dublin and my friends in Dublin begged me to bring back this liquorice mint (I think that’s what it was) tea for them. It was everywhere. Very popular.

  6. Sheila Ryan Post author

    Ooh ooh ooh! What if you were to meld Cale’s “Perfect” video with Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and you wound up with a kind of rotting Arcimboldo image?

  7. Lucy Foley

    DId ye hear about the Mayfair squatters? This group of hippie children squatted an 8 million pound empty house in Mayfair, the neighbourhood of diplomats and Old Money, and started making art projects and having babies and eating a lot of dried pasta. So they were kicked out at some point late last year, and they’ve just squatted another place, around the corner, ‘cept this one’s worth 25 million.

  8. Lucy Foley

    I’ve just been looking around at Arcimboldo images and they remind me of Chuck Close paintings. I love his shit though I am rarely drawn to hanging around them for very long. Unlike Rothko or Bacon, both of whose retrospectives I am hoping to spend some time with in London next week, though I have not booked anything yet.

    Yes, this comment is my valiant effort to keep this thread alive, by opening new topics that in some way relate to yesterday’s. But you know, if it isn’t real, I can accept the falling away of this comment thread. So you know, don’t feel beholden.

  9. Phil Bebbington

    I know what you mean Lucy – there is a reluctance to let this one end.

    I remember seeing a Bacon retrospective many years ago – God know where, I think it may have been at the Barbican – it was whilst I was doing work for the Royal Photographic Society in Bath. The then curator had been invited to the opening of a Cartier-Bresson exhibition there and had been kind enough to ask me along. I was very excited as the great man himself was attending! The Bacon exhibition was downstairs and so had a poke around at the same time!

    As for Rothko – I have a feeling that I may miss this – which is sad as I adore his work – they lose something in books, which I guess can be said for any work of art, but, I feel it more with Rothko – they really are best viewed as he demanded in subdued light.

    Have you read James E. B. Breslin’s biography of Rothko? I have read it a few times and enjoyed it very much.

    I did also buy a while back ‘The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art’ Rothko’s thoughts edited by his son Christopher – not such a light read! I have dipped but not yet read all.

    I would love to visit the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX.

  10. Lucy Foley

    Well it’s finishing next sunday, Phil, and that’s why I want to go to London this time. It’s all last minute and I have a tiny window of availability next week to actually go there. I saw the Bacon retrospective in Tate Britain last September, that was delicious. Also fascinating for the people who went to see it. I actually met someone there I had met a couple of days previously, which was fortuitous.

    This is a huge retrospective (both are). These things don’t happen so easily, don’t know how often the opportunity to see something like this really arises. I felt like that at BAM a couple of weeks ago, when I went to see Sam Mendes’ version of The Cherry Orchard. Chekov is just fucking incredible. I really hope I can make it.

  11. Lucy Foley

    You know that Rothko’s daughter had to fight for the rights to her own father’s estate, with the entire art world against her, at the age of 18? She has a crazy story.

  12. Cooper Renner

    John Cale’s “Hallelujah” is really fine, but so is Cohen’s. I don’t go much for Buckley’s (or for Buckley in general). Both Cale and Cohen have recorded a lot of crap, but when they are on, who is better? And they think as well as feel. Cale has such a deep musical background that it really layers a work like “Damn Life” to hear him singing his desolate lyrics over a warped-out playing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. And then a kid like Micah P Hinson comes along and writes his own desolation, just as deep, into a new song like “Beneath the Rose”, with a voice just as broken and emotive as Cale’s and Cohen’s and a sense of musical rightness that helps him create tunes just as beautiful and just as unhackneyed.

  13. Phil Bebbington

    Lucy – I’m really gonna see if I can get up there this week – I fear I may not, but, try I shall! It would be good to hear his daughters story, I do remember all the ‘who-ha’ at the time.

  14. Sheila Ryan Post author

    I’ve only been away a few hours, it seems, and lookee lookee. Lucy, thank you for doing the vestal virgin thing — keeping the flame burning, I mean.

    It’s hard to know where to jump in with this. Bacon? Rothko? John Cale? Laughin’ Lennie Cohen?

    Thoughtful? Anecdotal?

    Now this is why I am looking forward to real-time Skype talk about Daryl’s book. I’d just up and holler soon as one of y’all had finished saying his piece. Or maybe even before. Sometimes I’m bad that way.

  15. Lucy Foley

    It is a series: Lucy Meets Clusterflockers On Many Continents. So long as they are not incontinent, it usually goes well. Although of course, Lucy Meets Incontinent Clusterflockers On Many Continents has more of a ring to it.

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