The market of this “sculptor-painter”, whose auction prices are still affordable, is currently stabilising, even if great disparities exist. A market that still tends to be dominated by the United States…
Robert Mapplethorpe was born on 4 November 1946 in New York State, into an English-Irish Catholic family. He was the third of six children. He spent his childhood in Floral Park, Queens (New York) where he attended Our Lady of the Snows. “I was a Catholic boy, I went to church every Sunday. A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child. It still shows in how I arrange things” (Deborah A. Levinson, Robert Mapplethorpe’s Extraordinary Vision).
In 1963, Robert Mapplethorpe enrolled in Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. First — and primarily to please his father — he studied graphic arts. Bad choice. He dropped out two years later and it was then that he turned his attention the visual arts — drawing, painting, sculpture. He began making surrealist collages, in tandem with his discovery of cannabis and LSD. He met Patti Smith, and they became friends — following a short tryst.
At this time, Robert Mapplethorpe was largely marked by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell: he continued to practise collage, but also made boxes, installations and altar pieces, influenced by his Catholic childhood but also by black magic.
At the end of the 1960s, Robert Mapplethorpe became fascinated by the New York avant-garde. He namely frequented the clubs near Union Square, such as Max’s Kansas City or CBGB, where Factory members tended to congregate: Andy Warhol himself, but also Gerard Malanga and Candy Darling.
According to Patti Smith, it was only at the start of the 1970s that Robert Mapplethorpe started photography. His interest in the medium is inseparable from his visits to the Metropolitan Museum (New York), when John McKendry, drawing and photography curator, initiated him to the history of photography. The latter also gave him a Polaroid camera and film. Mapplethorpe would declare some time before his death: “If I had been born one hundred or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make a sculpture” (Janet Kardon, “Robert Mapplethorpe interview”, 1988). His relationship to photography is therefore sculptural, as much in the attention paid to volumes as in the sensuality of surfaces.
In 1972, it was Sam Wagstaff who entered the photographer’s life. This rich collector encouraged him to develop his practice, namely by creating large-format Polaroids. He also gave Mapplethorpe a loft at 24 Bond Street, as well as a Hasselblad camera. Their relationship, initially romantic, later turned into a friendship. Robert Mapplethorpe’s first Polaroid exhibition took place at the Light Gallery in New York, in 1973.
In 1975, Robert Mapplethorpe created the cover photo of Patti Smith’s record Horses. The second half of the 1970s brought a change to the photographer’s iconography. He would shoot more and more images on the theme of homosexual sadomasochism. At the end of the decade, he turned his focus to portraits of African-Americans. In 1979, Robert Mapplethorpe began his collaboration with Tom Baril, who would develop his photos until his death.
1980 marked Mapplethorpe’s meeting with Lisa Lyon, the first bodybuilding world champion, at a party in New York. A fruitful meeting, for the photographer produced portraits of her on several occasions, namely published in Artforum in 1980, in Elle in 1983, and seen at an exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in the same year.
In 1982, Robert Mapplethorpe sold his collection of old photographs at Sotheby’s New York. He nonetheless continued to collect objects, including Venetian glass from the 1950s and Scandinavian ceramics. In 1985, he started producing platinum prints. At the same time, he took on a growing number of projects. In 1986, for example, Robert Mapplethorpe created the sets for Portraits in Reflection, a choreography by Lucinda Childs at the Joyce Theater (New York).
Unfortunately, things took a bad turn. In September 1986, during a hospital stay for pneumonia, doctors detected that he had AIDS. His partner Sam Wagstaff died of the disease one year later. This loss prompted the photographer to set up the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, a charity aiming to finance research into AIDS, as well as photography projects. Mapplethorpe died on 9 March 1989.
1988, first retrospective at the Whitney
It was clearly in the second half of the 1970s that interest in Robert Mapplethorpe’s work became evident. In 1977, in New York, the Holly Solomon Gallery organised a first exhibition of his photographs while The Kitchen presented “Erotic Photos”, with Robert Mapplethorpe making erotic shots his focus at the time. In the same year, he took part in Documenta 6 at Cassel. In 1978, the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, published the first catalogue on Mapplethorpe. In the same year, the Robert Miller Gallery became his exclusive dealer.
One of Mapplethorpe’s first large-scale solo exhibitions took place at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, in 1983. It would however not be until 1988 that the first retrospective of his work was inaugurated at the Whitney Museum (New York). Robert Mapplethorpe had to go to the opening of the retrospective in a wheelchair, already weakened by AIDS.
His exhibitions underwent a second wind at the end of the 1990s, reaching a peak in 2009, the year commemorating 20 years since his death. That year, six galleries and eight museums organised solo exhibitions, including “Robert Mapplethorpe, La Perfezione nella Forma” at the Uffizi (Florence), “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art (Evanston) and “Robert Mapplethorpe – Photographs” at the National Gallery of Slovenia (Ljubljana).
Since 1977, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs have appeared in over 700 exhibitions, 155 of which have been monographic — in other words, a considerable 22 % of the total. Equally popular in museums (52 % of his exhibitions) and galleries (42 %), Robert Mapplethorpe has relied on the support of first-rate dealers such as the Weinstein, Sean Kelly, Baldwin, Fay Gold and Fraenkel Galleries.
Robert Mapplethorpe is largely recognised on the international scene. Some forty countries have welcomed his photographs at exhibitions, and his works are included in forty or so institutional collections in a dozen countries. However, he remains a child of the United States, for the country has hosted 45 % of his exhibitions — with a lesser proportion for his solo shows, just 18 %. The institutions most inclined to show his work are in New York: the Leslie Lohman Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the MoMA PS1.
Robert Mapplethorpe is most commonly displayed next to his model Andy Warhol. Otherwise, his work is also shown with other great American photographers, namely Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin, but also Man Ray.
Meanwhile, Robert Mapplethorpe’s press coverage has grown steadily in the last 25 years, apart from two peaks. The first was in 1989, following the artist’s death. The second, in 2010, coincided with a few good auction results. Ever since, the number of articles published on Robert Mapplethorpe has stabilised at around 800 per year. Only one-quarter of these articles is published in the United States; the other countries in question are Great Britain (10 %), Germany (7 %) and Italy (6.7 %). The writers who have spilt the most ink on him are Kenneth Baker (The Telegraph), Randy Kennedy (AL), James Adams (The Globe and Mail) and Jonathan Jones (The Guardian).
Warhol portrait for $560,000
“I have boundless admiration for the naked body. I worship it,” Robert Mapplethorpe once declared. Naked bodies gained him renown, and yet his most coveted works – apart from some of his portraits of course – are his flowers, suggestive but also pared-down, hence possibly less aggressive for collectors than his approach to sexuality. His record is for a portrait of Warhol, produced in 1987, selling for $560,000, topping the high estimate of $300,000, at Christie’s New York on 17 October 2006. This single copy went for ten times more than its multiple versions.
Price variations are not unusual for Mapplethorpe. As demonstrated by the difference between the results for two prints of Man in Polyester Suit (1980), #7/15 and #1/15, sold respectively for $478,000 in October 2015 at Sotheby’s New York and $388,000 in November 2015 at Christie’s Paris.
Since 1989, around 2,200 Robert Mapplethorpe works have been offered on sale. His photo market remains affordable: nearly half of his works have been acquired for under $10,000. One-quarter of his works fetch no buyers. The unsold rate of Robert Mapplethorpe’s prints have tended to increase over time, as a direct consequence of the growth in the number of his photographs offered for sale every year — about one hundred lots per year between 2000 and 2009, and an average of 125 since.
His auction results vary, punctuated by a few fine adjudications. A peak in 2006 ($2.6 million) can be explained by the pleasing result for Andy Warhol’s portrait; another in 2010 ($2 million) can be attributed to the purchase of two Calla Lily (1984) works at Christie’s New York for $270,000 and $220,000 at the one sale: in October 2016, Flag (1989) sold at Chrisite’s for $400,000 — the second-best performance of a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph on the auction market.
As revealed by these results, Christie’s leads the market. This auction house, scoring a business volume of $12.5 million from Mapplethorpe, has captured 46 % of his market while selling only 32 % of his lots. It is tailed by Sotheby’s (27 % of the artist’s market for 21 % of lots sold) and Phillips (15 % for 14 % of lots sold). Unsurprisingly, the United States remains the privileged place for auction houses when selling Mapplethorpe prints. They account for 72 % of the artist’s business volume and 61 % of lots sold.
The market of Robert Mapplethorpe, a great figure in photography, therefore remains affordable, in spite of great disparities. Since 2007, his prints have stabilised at around $15,000.
“Mapplethorpe was a powerful artist: few bodies of work have created such a stir beyond the art world, for he brought social taboos out into the open. Armed with a razor-sharp aesthetic sense and a vast visual culture, he put on display three taboos of American society — violence, homosexuality and interracial relationships — whose scars remain, even today. Mapplethorpe forced a debate, one that has a long history and still goes on, about artistic, but especially social, censorship. His work, so current in its commitment, could only reinforce the values of tolerance and openness that I want the Museum to convey.”
Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
“Focus: Perfection. Robert Mapplethorpe”, until 22 January 2017. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 1380 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal (Quebec), Canada. www.mbam.qc.ca