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Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died 22 years ago yesterday – March 9, 1989. He succumbed to AIDS at a Boston hospital at age 42. I don’t think he had yet peaked, creatively speaking, but he left behind a substantial and well-respected body of work. He may end up being remembered not so much for his photographs, which are good enough, but for the controversy around the public exhibition of his most controversial homoerotic work in 1989 and 1990, which he was no longer alive to see. That controversy, by the way, makes the Smithsonian’s recent bout with Congressionally-inflicted homophobia look like a polite disagreement over tea.

I like much of Mapplethorpe’s work a lot. We would all benefit from studying his spare and elegant still lifes, and his serial portrait of Patti Smith that spans the many years of their intimate friendship is equally powerful. The gay porn stuff that got him into so much trouble I find repulsive and disturbing, no so much because of the gay part but because I find it crude and deliberately shocking and as such not worthy of an artist of Mapplethorpe’s stature. That’s my personal bias, I know, but I’m sticking with it.

As much as I dislike the work in question, I will always thank Mapplethorpe for causing the firestorm that he didn’t live to see. It was a dandy for those of us who remember it. It’s covered well on his wiki page so I won’t go over it in any detail except to say that anyone who can piss off the likes of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the late bigot and knuckle-dragging moron who filibustered Martin Luther King Day, is OK in my book.

I also note that Mapplethorpe, suffering from that touch of narcissism that infects all artists (myself included), left behind a number of self-portraits. I will always remember this one, taken in the year before his death, as one of his best works.

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  1. By Mapplethorpe Redux « The ADD-Challenged Eye on 09 Mar 2012 at 8:33 pm

    […] posted this entry noting the death of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe a year ago today. Since practically no one read it, I thought I’d call your attention to it […]

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