Photographer Mapplethorpe dies

BOSTON -- Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, known for his erotic, sometimes controversial works, died Thursday of AIDS-related complications in Deaconess Hospital, his gallery said. He was 43.

Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome more than a year ago and was in Boston for a special treatment when his condition worsened unexpectedly, said Susan Arthur of the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, which represented the artist.


'He is someone who crossed the border between photography and fine art,' Arthur said, adding Mapplethorpe was about to publish two new books of his work.

Mapplethorpe was known for the hard-edged sensuality of his photographs. His sadomasochistic, gay-oriented work of the 1970s was particularly controversial.

'I just want to be written about as a normal artist,' Mapplethorpe once told American Photographer magazine.

'I never wanted to be a photographer,' he said. 'It was sort of a mistake really. I only wanted to make a statement and photography ended up being the vehicle.'


In August 1988, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art featured him in a one-man show with 100 of his works. The New York weekly 7 Days reported that Mapplethorpe, suffering from AIDS, appeared at the opening, 'dapper but visibly frail.'

'For an hour he was propped up on a couch ... surrounded by his pictures. Then, when the crush of well-wishers made the place too steamy, he was whisked away.'

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for 7 Days, wrote in the same issue, 'It's time to say that Robert Mapplethorpe is the greatest pure studio photographer of our time and one of the most important photographers of all time. He has altered the common meanings of his medium.'

The photographer's recent work reflected his illness, Arthur said.

'His pictures now were about what he was experiencing. That he was fighting dying makes them that much more timely in this age of AIDS,' Arthur said.

Born in 1946 the son of an electrical engineer and raised in a middle-class, Catholic home in Floral Park, N.Y., Mapplethorpe took to Manhattan's 42nd Street in the 1960s to find subjects for his stark, classically composed black-and-white photographs.

In 1962, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute, one of New York's top art schools. He meandered through the curriculum for eight years, in the process meeting rock musician and poet Patti Smith, who became his portrait subject and lover.


His subject matter included homosexual taboos, traditional still lifes, commercial advertising, fashion photography and album covers. His work yielded 20 published books and exhibition catalogs and brought some of the highest prices of any living art photographer.

When the mid-1970s gave rise to New Wave rock 'n' roll, Mapplethorpe created austere black-and-white album covers for Smith and the group Television.

He credited Smith with helping embolden the homosexuality of his early photographic images that dealt with sexual perversity -- from sadomasochistic scenes with chains and black leather to an oversized image of male genitals resting atop a pedestal.

In the mid-1970s, he began working as a staff photographer for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine.

His flattering celebrity portraits included John Paul Getty III, Arnold Schwarzenegger and late photo collector Sam Wagstaff, his patron and lover who died of pneumonia in 1986.

In 1987, Mapplethorpe's platinum-on-linen prints, produced in single editions, sold for $15,000 each.

Mapplethorpe, though personable himself, gave a marble quality to his nude photographs, and his photographs were becoming 'more clear and precise, more aure black and white,' Arthur said.

An exhibit of his work is now on tour, scheduled for stops in Chicago and several other major cities, Arthur said.


'It's good that his hometown was finally celebrating his career in his final years. He got the praise he deserved after being the bad boy and getting a lot of criticism for so many years,' she said.

Mapplethorpe is survived by his father and mother, Harry and Joan Mapplethorpe; two sisters, Nancy Rooney and Susan Schneider; and two brothers, Edward and James Mapplethorpe. A third brother, Richard, died in 1986.

Stout suggested memorial donations be made to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which was established one year ago by Mapplethorpe and is active in supporting the visual arts, or to AIDS research.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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