Will controversy be Mapplethorpe's lasting image?

Black and white
Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe focused on contrasts, whether it was difference in skin tone or a woman's body next to a man's.
Copyright (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis is one of only two galleries in the nation that work directly with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to display the artist's images. This is gallery owner Martin Weinstein's second show of Mapplethorpe's photography. He says it's a look at some of Mapplethorpe's most beautiful pieces, centered on photographs of male and female torsos. There's a man seated on a stool, a woman arching her back, and a trio of nudes posed almost as you might expect to see them on a Grecian urn.

A study of the body
Ken Moody, 1983. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe examined the beauty of the human form much as a Greek sculptor would. One of his favorite subjects was physical trainer Ken Moody, pictured above.
Copyright (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

"We've presented him here once again in the classical style," says Weinstein. "My feeling is that Robert became a larger-than-life person, so we're dealing with celebrity status. I think that we've stripped that off in this show."

It's not easy to separate Robert Mapplethorpe's infamy from his photographs.

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42. Despite his early death, he left behind an extensive body of work, ranging from intimate portraits of famous artists to luminous still-lifes of flowers. But it was his series of photographs depicting sado-masochistic sex acts that drew him the most attention.

Martin Weinstein
Martin Weinstein is the owner and proprietor of Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis. His is one of only two galleries in the United States with permission to show and sell Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. This is Weinstein's second Mapplethorpe show; the first he held in 2004.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Just a few months after his death, a touring retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work launched a culture war. Republican Senator Jesse Helms attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for funding pornography. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC cancelled the showing it had scheduled. When the exhibition arrived at Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center, its director was indicted for pandering and obscenity. The director was eventually acquitted of all charges.

Minnesota Center for Photography's director George Slade says that firestorm has all but burned out.

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"Maybe there's a bit of controversy that clings to the name that may help market it, that may draw people in," says Slade. "But I think that he has become, if not a mainstream, blue-chip artist, at least a highly-thought-of modernist and formalist, and a very accepted artist."

Lydia Cheng, 1984. One of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's favorite female models was Lydia Cheng. He took a keen interest in photographing her figure, almost always from the neck down.
Copyright (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Slade says with time, Mapplethorpe's images have become much more widely respected. He compares him to the 1930s photographer Edward Weston. Weston took a luscious picture of a bell pepper that looked almost human.

"For an audience in 1930, a pepper was something that you chopped up and put on your salad; it wasn't something that made fine art," says Slade. "So there was a transgressive quality to that. I mean, Weston photographed toilets as well and made beautiful pictures of toilets. And people said, 'That's not art, that can't be art. That's not something I want to look at.'"

Weston is now considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Many believe Mapplethorpe fits in that select group, too. Photographer Lynn Davis was a friend of Mapplethorpe. She says he was an accomplished photographer, not just in terms of his subject matter, but also in terms of his technique:

In living color
Ken Moody, 1984. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe occasionally strayed from his work in black and white, and when he did it was to use rich and voluptuous colors, as in this picture of Ken Moody with a lily.
Copyright (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

"There are many things about his work," says Davis. "He was always trying new things. He did lithographs, he did platinum prints, he tried everything. And had he lived longer, I think he'd be right along with the best of them today."

Davis says ultimately Mapplethorpe will not be remembered for his controversial images; he'll be remembered for his entire body of work. Nineteen of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs are on view at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis through mid-July.