Critics’ Picks

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (self-portrait), 1970/73, Polaroid, 4 1/4 x 3 1/4".

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (self-portrait), 1970/73, Polaroid, 4 1/4 x 3 1/4".


Robert Mapplethorpe

Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University
40 Arts Circle Drive
January 13–April 5, 2009

Now two decades since the culture wars co-opted Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, it feels possible to view his work without a knee-jerk defense against philistinism. Indeed, the intimate scale of these black-and-white Polaroids offers an experience very different from the larger format and crisp formality of the artist’s later work. But though these works of 1970–75—ninety-two selected from some fifteen hundred that were made—are among his earliest in the medium, they evidence the heights to which this relatively simple technology could be raised. Mapplethorpe’s is not the Polaroid of the snapshot, but rather one of careful composition and deliberate lighting. Flowers, portraits of friends and lovers, and nude men in bondage are united by his predilection for a clean line and a strong pose. The untitled work of two wicker chairs against a bare wall, for instance, is a classic study in form, while Untitled (Stewart Foster), 1973/75, highlights the sleek musculature of the nude male subject through side lighting that accents the body’s angles and curves. An accompanying catalogue reveals that not all of Mapplethorpe’s early works are as pristine as those on view, where cluttered backgrounds and experimental exposures betray an element of play that has been largely edited out of this exhibition. What remains is a beautifully installed body of work that reveals an eye made for the viewfinder, exquisitely adept at framing a scene.