NARRATOR: Robert Mapplethorpe made numerous self-portraits, assuming different personalities—rocker, cross-dresser, and devil. In this stark and foreboding self-image, the artist confronts death. The picture was made in 1988, after Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. His black shirt merges with the black background so that his head and hand seem to float, mysteriously unattached to a body. His face is subtly blurred, leaving the skull atop his cane in sharp focus. Tightly gripping the cane, gazing directly out of the picture, Mapplethorpe appears strong and resolute in the face of his imminent death.

This portrait showcases the qualities that made Mapplethorpe’s photographs so powerful. The image is precise, tightly focused, and displays a rich range of blacks, whites, and grays. He explained, “I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect.” Mapplethorpe brought this rigorous, classical approach to all of his subjects: nudes, flowers, portraits, and sexually explicit, homoerotic images.

This last subject matter launched an emotional public debate over censorship and the role of federal funding for the Arts funding during the 1980s. This controversy played out on the floors of congress and ultimately led to the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It also led to the 1990 obscenity trial of the director of Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, which hosted this show’s tour. The Whitney Museum mounted a major Mapplethorpe retrospective in the summer of 1988, around the time that he made this photograph. The artist died in 1989.


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