This past Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to see a newly released film about a photographer whose work I admired very much in college, Robert Mapplethorpe. (Thank you, Susi!) I was reminded as I watched this film of his life…his beginnings as a new artist at Pratt Institute, his relationship with poet/singer/songwriter Patti Smith, his growth in the photographic medium, and his premature death. I remember when I learned about his work in a 20th century art history class, and I remember how I selected his work as my inspiration in a course titled, Developing a Personal Vision.
I went back and read my “Artist’s Statement of Intent.” Yes, I kept it, along with everything else I ever wrote in college! I was reflecting on a body of work created the previous quarter in historical techniques, and what I wanted to do for the next body of work. I talked about images of the figure, and images of flowers, as my subjects. I said, “Much of this work is influenced by Robert Mapplethorpe and his treatment of the figure and flower, and also by Oriental paintings and their simplicity.” Oddly enough, I collect Japanese block prints today! Obviously, things stick.
This was in the fall of 1991, a time when some of you may remember the controversy that surrounded the exhibitions of his work, as well as several other artists that included Andres Serrano. Mapplethorpe died in 1989, and that same year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art (in Washington DC) cancelled a Mapplethorpe exhibit, because, “It did not want to adversely affect the NEA’s (National Endowment for the Arts) congressional appropriations.” They later backtracked and issued an apology for offending many members in their arts community. What you may also recall is Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), and his attempts to censor art, and decide what art was worthy of receiving grants. He certainly didn’t die prematurely.
The controversy did not have an influence on my choice of Mapplethorpe as inspiration. What I do remember is his work. This was a time before the Internet, so I mail-ordered many of his books in order to do a well-rounded presentation. Yes, his early works would be very provocative, but what I was most drawn to were his figure studies, statues, portraits, and flowers. His work was so clean, and perfect. His lighting, posing, position and framing of the image were so carefully planned. I could certainly tell he put much effort and thought into his vision.
I wanted to do the same thing, and by the end of the quarter, I produced a body of work that earned me an A in that class, and on my final Statement of Intent, my professor wrote, “Final Portfolio – A, Excellent progress – You really pushed yourself.”
Here’s an interesting alternative to a silver gelatin print made from one of my negatives from that course, 25 years ago! I’m not a film critic, but I give the film, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, five stars. It’s worth it! And, thanks to Senator Helms for that appropriate title.