Robert Mapplethorpe is arguably one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Mapplethorpe discovered himself both sexually and artistically in New York City throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The film depicts Mapplethorpe’s life from moments before he and Patti Smith moved into the famed Chelsea Hotel, home to a world of bohemian chic. Here, he begins photographing its inhabitants and his newfound circle of friends including artists and musicians, socialites, film stars, and members of the S&M underground.

Mapplethorpe’s work displayed eroticism in a way that had never been examined nor displayed before to the public. Exploring the intersection of his art, his sexuality and his struggle for mainstream recognition, MAPPLETHORPE offers a nuanced portrait of an artist at the height of his craft and of the self-destructive impulses that threaten to undermine it all.


There have been a couple documentaries and plenty of exhibitions about the famed photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, but this is the first feature film to depict his troubled life. It begins when Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe have a chance meeting in a park, which eventually leads to the two “artists” co-habitating as a couple for several years. They even fake marriage to appease Mapplethorpe’s stern and religious parents, unaccepting of his bohemian lifestyle.

Mapplethorpe began with sketching and collaging until he was encouraged to pick up a camera and try photography, by legendary artist, filmmaker, and photographer, Sandy Daley. She actually gave him his first Polaroid camera. What began as standard portrait shots, quickly morphed into a plethora of nudes and sexually suggested images of both male and female “models”, who essentially were either friends, lovers, or strays picked up in bars and on the streets. While he continued to prosper and captured many celebrities through the lens, it was these more erotic images that he remains known for to this day, with original prints fetching upwards of several thousand dollars each.

He and Patti moved into the famed Chelsea Hotel, where they had to barter Mapplethorpe’s work in order to cover the first month’s rent. The pair created jewelry and sold some artwork to pay the desk clerk and recover the tendered work back. Mapplethorpe gravitated to hanging out at male leather and kink bars, fascinated by the dominant male physique, and eventually, he ended up in bed with one of his photographic subjects, while on acid. Patti soon discovered the inner Mapplethorpe, and while sexually open herself, she decided it was time to leave. Mapplethorpe told her, “If you leave me I’ll become gay.” He later turns tricks with men to pay the rent.

His luck takes a turn for the better when he meets art curator and collector, Sam Wagstaff. The pair become lovers and Mapplethorpe is introduced to the biggest movers and shakers in the New York City art world. As they say, the rest is history. The only thing is that Mapplethorpe was headed into decline, spiraling out of control with drugs and sex, eventually leading to his contracting AIDS in the early 80s, at the height of the crisis, and the height of his short-lived career. Despite his ailing health, Mapplethorpe refused to get tested for the AIDS virus, and realized his end was inevitable when he stated, “I’ll never know what it’s like to be famous.”

What was greatly obvious in this film that wasn’t focused on as much in previous documentaries, was the close relationship he had with his brother, Edward Mapplethorpe. His younger brother admired and looked up to Robert, not only for his unique photography skills, but also because he left their religious family behind to pursue his dreams elsewhere. Edward acted as his assistant for many years, all the while developing his own photographic skills. He also stuck by his brother right to the dying end in the hospital, as did Smith. His parents remained alienated from him, and ironically his mother died three days after Robert’s memorial, leaving his disgruntled father alone. Wagstaff died earlier from AIDS complications as well and left his inheritance to Mapplethorpe.

A year before his death, he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which has now raised more than 50 million dollars toward the fight against HIV and AIDS, and establishing photography as a recognized art form.

A wonderful film, just see viewing for fans, or those curious to know more about this fascinating individual. Starring Matt Smith. Directed by Ondi Timoner.

Mapplethorpe Exhibitions in Toronto and New York City

For those here in Toronto be sure to check out this new Mapplethorpe exhibition, “The Outsiders“, opening May 2nd at the Olga Korper Gallery (17 Morrow Ave). The Gallery’s eighth solo exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, The Outsiders, investigates the relevance of Mapplethorpe’s photographs in the current political climate. The nostalgic resurgence of 1980s pop culture in the last few years has brought the return of classic characters—the rebel, the rocker, the outsider, the female bodybuilder, the male dancer—embodying the fluidity of identity beyond gender, pushing back relentlessly against the status quo. The Outsiders explores strength and vulnerability beyond political opinion, personal definition, and public expression. Addressing preconceived rules about what it means to be male, to be female, and to belong—both within the body and within society—The Outsiders seeks out androgyny, finding comfort in the heroes of the past, and courage in how we define our future. Thirty years later, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are as current as they were the day he snapped the shutter; still holding up a mirror to contemporary issues of sex and gender in a world once again rife with changing conceptions of meaning, appearance, and acceptance.

If you’re in the New York City area, be sure to check out the Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, January 25–July 10, 2019, and, July 24, 2019–January 5, 2020.

In the thirty years since his death, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) has become a cultural icon. One of the most critically acclaimed and controversial American artists of the late twentieth century, Mapplethorpe is widely known for daring imagery that deliberately transgresses social mores, and for the censorship debates that transpired around his work in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet the driving force behind his artistic ethos was an obsession with perfection that he bought to bear on his approach to each of his subjects.

In 1993, the Guggenheim received a generous gift of approximately two hundred photographs and unique objects from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, initiating the museum’s photography collection. Today, the Guggenheim celebrates the sustained legacy of the artist’s work with a yearlong exhibition program conceived in two sequential parts and presented in the museum’s Mapplethorpe Gallery on Tower Level 4.

The first part of Implicit Tensions (January 25–July 10, 2019) features highlights from the Guggenheim’s in-depth Mapplethorpe holdings, including early Polaroids, collages, and mixed-media constructions; iconic, classicizing photographs of male and female nudes; floral still lifes; portraits of artists, celebrities, and acquaintances; explicit depictions of New York’s underground S&M scene; and searingly honest self-portraits.

The second part of Implicit Tensions (July 24, 2019–January 5, 2020) will address Mapplethorpe’s complex legacy in the field of contemporary art. A focused selection of his photographs will be on view alongside works by artists in the Guggenheim’s collection, including Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.