Robert Mapplethorpe





Press release

Opening: Friday 10 March 2017 from 6pm until 8pm

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents the exhibition Objects, with unique early pieces by Robert Mapplethorpe shown for the first time in Paris.

Dating back to the late sixties and early seventies, these rarely exhibited works chart Mapplethorpe’s experimental approach to subjects and mediums, demonstrating how the sensibilities shaped during this time would continue to inform his creative practice. These first gems of his artistic path undeniably present a sculptural quality and can be read like visual poems.

As Mapplethorpe once told Patti Smith: “I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.”[1] At the time he was fascinated by religious imagery, notably derived from his traditional Catholic upbringing. He was drawn to symbols and geometric motifs, and made many collages and arrangements evoking the trilogy iconography, while interpreting and transgressing traditional religious representation. He also explored darker subjects such as black magic and Tantra Art, and redesigned Tarot cards, replacing the imagery with male figures taken from men's pornographic magazines.  

“Magic held a distinctive place in Mapplethorpe’s life. […] In the summer of 1967, during the time he was away from school, Mapplethorpe’s connection with the supernatural was enhanced by his new relationship with Patti Smith. A magical spirit in her own right, Smith practiced the tarot, and together the young couple studied philosophies and the occult.”[2]The two artists lived together at the Chelsea Hotel until 1969. Mapplethorpe then fully embraced his homosexuality. They remained very close until his death.

Included in the exhibition, a rare 1968 collage, Untitled (Madonna Medaillon), presents an image of the Madonna in a hand-drawn geometric architecture. In a manner reminiscent of Surrealism, the figure seems to levitate on a shell-like organic shape, which may also evoke an anatomical view of male genitalia. Outside the frame, a felt sticker representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus emblematises Mapplethorpe’s interest in recycling religious paraphernalia and mixing it with sexual references.

A later large triangle sculpture, Untitled (1983), shows the artist’s longstanding fascination for formal perfection and symmetry, largely drawn from the Christian liturgy. « A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child, » Mapplethorpe told Ingrid Sischy. « It still shows in how I arrange things. It’s always little altars. It’s always been this way-whenever I’d put something together I’d notice it was symmetrical.[3] » Once again, Mapplethorpe plays with the ambivalence of the X symbol, which carries both a religious and pornographic connotation. While the inscription of his own name and the felt coloured stripes give a mystical dimension to what can be read as an abstract self-portrait.


From 1963 to 1969, Mapplethorpe attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied painting and sculpture, and majored in Graphic Arts. During these formative years he produced numerous drawings, collages and also three-dimensional objects using all kinds of media. In 1971 he started taking Polaroids and progressively included photography into his collages, along with cut-outs from books and magazine clippings. The instantaneity of the Polaroid and the intimacy of its format contributed to forge Mapplethorpe’s distinctive language of familiarity and seductiveness. It is only after 1975 that Mapplethorpe started to work exclusively with photography, when he was given a Hasselblad 500 camera by curator and collector Sam Wagstaff, who was also his mentor and lover.

Considered today as an essential part of his œuvre, a large selection of these early works have recently been acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles Country Museum (LACMA). In 2016, the two institutions organized the largest retrospective of the artist to date. The corresponding catalogue Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive published by the Getty Research Institute is the first publication entirely devoted to this period.

[1] Quoted in Patti Smith, Just Kids (New York : HarperCollins, 2010), 75.

[2] Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick, Robert Mapplethorpe The Archive (Los Angeles : Getty Research Institute, 2016), 35.

[3] Quoted in Ingrid Sischy, «  A Society Artist » in Robert Mapplethorpe (Whitney Museum of  American Art, 1990), 82.