After much anticipation, the Robert Mapplethorpe archive is now available at the Getty Research Institute. Generously donated by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, with artworks jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the archive spans the artist’s career from his student days at Pratt Institute in the 1960s through his more well-known photographs from the 1980s. The archive includes sculpture and assemblages, collages, cut-outs, early drawings and paintings, Polaroids, and examples of large-format photographic prints of flowers, portraits, nudes, and sadomasochistic subjects.
With grant funding from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the collection was arranged, processed, and cataloged by a team of archivists, library assistants and interns. Working collaboratively allowed each of us to make exciting discoveries about Mapplethorpe’s life and work. Among these discoveries are the comparisons that can be drawn from over 1,000 non-editioned prints in the archive and approximately 2,000 editioned prints held at the Getty Museum.
Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic decisions and technical skills are revealed in nearly 3,500 Polaroid test shots, in which many are annotated with lighting angles, filters, exposure times, and aperture settings.
We found the way Mapplethorpe arranged his photographs, slides, and Polaroids especially intriguing. They were organized according to a particular subject matter or theme, such as flowers, portraits, and sex. We kept the original order of these materials and arranged the prints according to their established themes to preserve the integrity of the collection and to represent as closely as possible the way Mapplethorpe worked and maintained his personal archive. Of particular interest are three leather portfolios containing some of his earlier prints from the 1970s. It is likely that Mapplethorpe used these portfolios to promote his work commercially. The archive contains Mapplethorpe’s commercial prints, as well as magazine and newspaper articles featuring his work.
The correspondence contained in the archive confirms that Mapplethorpe was never short on admirers, and it documents how his personal and professional relationships were often intertwined. While processing this collection, it was almost impossible to completely separate the two; business associates were friends and friends were often business associates.
There are letters from John McKendry, former curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; correspondence from Lisa Lyon, the famous bodybuilding champion and muse to Mapplethorpe in the 1980s; and an abundance of letters and postcards from Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s lover and mentor. A key figure in the artist’s personal and professional life, Wagstaff expressed his constant support of Mapplethorpe’s career through his letters. Showing the more affectionate side of their relationship, he addressed Mapplethorpe with terms of endearment like “muffin,” and sealed the envelope of this letter with “monkey hugs.” The GRI also holds the Sam Wagstaff papers; together these archives provide rich resources for scholarship on photography, while revealing information regarding their intimate relationship.
Patti Smith chronicled her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in her 2010 publication Just Kids. In her book, Smith references the jewelry-making kit Robert used as a child to make brooches and necklaces strung of Indian beads for his mother. Mapplethorpe continued to make jewelry into his early 20s, which incorporated skulls, dice and coins. The archive contains five necklaces, as well as the tools and beads he used to make them. Several of Mapplethorpe’s sitters were photographed wearing his jewelry, such as artist Ruth Kligman. Many other necklaces are documented in Polaroids and tear sheets in the collection.
Shortly before the artist’s death in 1989 he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to support photography as an art form and to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection. The archive contains material collected by the Foundation after 1989 including: newspaper clippings, television news transcripts, and video recordings of news casts and documentaries dealing with the censorship controversies that arose from the 1989 Mapplethorpe exhibition The Perfect Moment. These materials are an important resource when considering the lines between art and pornography and the censorship of artistic expression and compliment the exhibitions of Mapplethorpe’s work currently on view at the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.