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.