Mapplethorpe’s subjects also included individuals from the subcultures of the time such as punks and those engaged in the S&M scene. In works such as Smutty 1980 the subjects nickname, tattoos, studded wristband and knowing look suggest that there is a darker side to this androgynous-looking young man. The placement of the arms and the contrapposto of the body and head are features common in Mannerist art, an area of art history that Mapplethorpe had a particular interest in.
Portraiture was one of the main strands of Mapplethorpe’s work and during his lifetime, he published books which concentrated on portraiture, including Lady: Lisa Lyon 1983, Certain People: A Book of Portraits 1985, 50 New York Artists 1986, in collaboration with Richard Marshall, and Some Women 1989. His subjects included those from wide-ranging social and cultural contexts: from royalty and aristocracy to rent boys, but a large proportion of his portraits from the 1980s were of prominent figures, many in the arts.
His portraits can be seen as a reflection of New York’s ‘cultural scene’ throughout the 1980s and each image is characterised by Mapplethorpe’s style – his relentless pursuit of beauty where imperfections are absent. The works appear not to define the persona of each sitter but confirm Mapplethorpe’s vision, which allows depictions of the sitters that mirror their most perfect selves. The critic and curator Janet Kardon describes Mapplethorpe’s portraiture subjects as ‘avatars for his vision’.
In 1984 Mapplethorpe photographed Grace Jones, the Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, model and actress, known for her androgynous looks and her provocative behaviour. Jones was a prominent figure in the New York art and social scene in the 1980s, a successful recording artist, film actress and sometimes muse of the artist Andy Warhol.
In Mapplethorpe’s Grace Jones 1985, Jones is decorated in body paint by the artist Keith Haring for her performance at Paradise Garage, an alternative dance club in New York City. Keith Haring was introduced to Grace Jones by Andy Warhol and Warhol arranged for Mapplethorpe to photograph Jones prior to the performance. Although the image could be seen as a multiple collaboration it is classic Mapplethorpe; the sitter is portrayed frontally, occupying the parameters of the lens in complete symmetry.
Jones has a perfectly sculpted body and often took on masculinised personas in her performances, challenging representations of the female body. She occupies both the mainstream and avant-garde position within society and transformed her body into a site of power. A second photograph from this session was featured in Mapplethorpe’s book Certain People: A Book of Portraits.
Mapplethorpe’s interest in portraiture stemmed from his concern with the beauty of the human form. Much of his work has a strongly classical and sculptural quality. What does Janet Kardon mean when she describes Mapplethorpe’s portraiture subjects as ‘avatars for his vision’? Do you think the personality being photographed is relevant to the image and Mapplethorpe? What is the difference between the subject and the sitter?
Mapplethorpe’s subjects are often referred to as epitomising a particular cultural scene with figures such as Andy Warhol, Marianne Faithful and Grace Jones. Create a collage bringing together figures which you feel occupy an equivalent scene today.
Alex Katz often paints family and friends. Find out more about Alex Katz.