Robert Mapplethorpe - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 3, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Midwest

  • Literature

    Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, back cover
    Celant, Mapplethorpe: The Nymph Photography, pl. 107
    Celant, Robert Mapplethorpe and The Classical Tradition, pl. 117
    Random House, Mapplethorpe, p. 305

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Everything, down to the tiniest detail, is controlled. Nothing is left to chance. Mastery is total. Figures and flowers turn into statues in a space without air. They are, in a sense, dead. Mapplethorpe's art is at the same time a bitter struggle against death and a wholehearted embrace of it.” Michael Brenson, New York Times, 22 July 1989

    Taken in the last year of the photographer’s life, the meticulously composed Skull reinterprets the memento mori through Robert Mapplethorpe’s highly stylized vision. With its carefully-modulated diagonal bands of light and shadow in the background, and its precise rendering of detail in its principle subject, Skull acknowledges the inevitability of death, but also shows the possibility of beauty within death—a beauty that stands in defiance of mortality. While beauty and death were themes that Mapplethorpe explored throughout his career, they acquire a new eloquence in this late image in light of his death from complications due to HIV/AIDS in March of 1989.

    Skull was chosen as the back cover illustration for The Perfect Moment, the catalogue accompanying the photographer’s final lifetime exhibition. The controversy surrounding the exhibition – including the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s abrupt cancellation, and the obscenity trial in Cincinnati – shaped the cultural debate surrounding not only public support of the arts, but art’s place in public life. Seen against this backdrop, and that of the growing AIDS crises, Skull’s austere account of its subject matter provides a dignified and powerful response to the contentious voices on all sides.

    Skull is the perfect counterpoint to the delicate calla lily study chosen to grace the front cover of The Perfect Moment. The two images are apt bookends for Mapplethorpe’s career: Calla Lily signifying Mapplethorpe’s skill in capturing the sensuality of natural forms, and Skull representing his darker themes. Both images show the photographer’s unwavering obsession with the object in front of his camera, his desire to capture the physical essence of his subjects, and his belief in photography as the perfect medium to convey this to the viewer. Two of Mapplethorpe’s studies of calla lilies are offered in this auction as lots 217 and 224.

  • Artist Biography

    Robert Mapplethorpe

    American • 1946 - 1989

    After studying drawing, painting and sculpture at the Pratt Institute in the 1960s, Robert Mapplethorpe began experimenting with photography while living in the notorious Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith. Beginning with Polaroids, he soon moved on to a Hasselblad medium-format camera, which he used to explore aspects of life often only seen behind closed doors.

    By the 1980s Mapplethorpe's focus was predominantly in the studio, shooting portraits, flowers and nudes. His depiction of the human form in formal compositions reflects his love of classical sculpture and his groundbreaking marriage of those aesthetics with often challenging subject matter. Mapplethorpe's style is present regardless of subject matter — from erotic nudes to self-portraits and flowers — as he ceaselessly strove for what he called "perfection of form."

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Gelatin silver print.
19 1/8 x 19 1/4 in. (48.6 x 48.9 cm)
Signed, dated by Michael Ward Stout, Executor, in ink and estate copyright credit reproduction limitation stamp on the reverse of the flush-mount. Number 5 from an edition of 10.

$50,000 - 70,000 

Sold for $31,250

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New York Auction 4 October 2018