ARTIST ROOMS: Robert Mapplethorpe: Balance and Unity

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Lowell Smith’ 1981
Robert Mapplethorpe
Lowell Smith 1981
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Beyond ideals of the human body, characteristic of Mapplethorpe’s figurative work and ancient Greek sculpture, balance and unity were key to Mapplethorpe’s compositions. In his portrait / partial body study Ken Moody 1983, the sitter is typically photographed frontally in perfect symmetry with his mouth and nose at the very centre of the image; his shoulders, which fill the bottom of the frame, and the top of his smooth head form a triangular shape, which was favoured in many of Mapplethorpe’s sculptures and photographs.

Typical of Mapplethorpe’s work, Ken Moody, a model he worked with numerous times, is photographed in his studio with photographic backdrop material in the background to allow absolute focus on the figure in the foreground. The lighting is arranged to enhance the sitter’s symmetrical features, muscle definition and bone-structure.

The sitter’s eyes are closed suggesting that this work is more closely related to Mapplethorpe’s body studies rather than one of his portraits.

Mapplethorpe’s photograph Patti Smith 1976, like many of his photographs of Smith, is taken outside the studio. Captured while Smith temporarily lived in Mapplethorpe’s loft apartment, the photograph relies on natural light. Looking pensive and somewhat insecure, her body, cradled in a foetal position, Smith holds onto a radiator pipe running along the wall. The geometries of Smith’s body unify the geometries of the room and enhance perspective. The main axies are horizontal and vertical, but running in counterpoint to these are the diagonals of the radiator pipes beneath the windows and of Smith’s arms and legs.

Despite lacking a studio, lighting and styling equipment, the image is quintessentially Mapplethorpe.