Perfection in form

Words by Justin Quirk
Photography by Robert Mapplethorpe

Inside the groundbreaking new exhibition exploring New York, the 1970s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s true genius

The further that Robert Mapplethorpe’s work recedes into history, the more contemporary it seems. With the frequent casting of himself as the star of his own story, the elevation of his peers to a strange kind of celebrity, the unfiltered intimacy of his pictures and the dissolution of the line between privacy and exposure, he would have fitted in perfectly today.

The passage of time has also allowed Mapplethorpe’s work to emerge from the shadow of the shock that was often engendered by his more explicit pieces and to be reassessed in formal and artistic terms, so his influence and power as an artist can be fully appreciated. Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium is a major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), co-organised with the J. Paul Getty Museum. 

The show traces the lines that went through Mapplethorpe’s practice,
how improvisation and experimentation co-existed with perfectionism and precision, and how he settled upon three main types of expression: portraiture, the nude and still life. As well as the photographic material, there is also a wealth of correspondence, books and ephemera that reveal the day-to-day routine of Mapplethorpe’s life and studio (much of the material has been supplied by the Getty Research Institute, which holds the Mapplethorpe archive). LACMA will focus on “Mapplethorpe’s working methods, sources, and creative processes – the experimental and performative aspects of his work”, while the concurrent show at the J. Paul Getty Museum will be devoted to “the artist’s disciplined studio practice, figures studies and legacy”. In total, more than 300 works by the artist will be on show, one of the largest ever displays of Mapplethorpe’s work.


Above: Melody (Shoe) – Robert Mapplethorpe, 1987
Gelatin silver print image, 19 1/4 x 19 3/8 in
Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.52.22
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation