Mapplethorpe, Robert

Untitled #2, 1985

Image for Untitled #2, 1985

In the early 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe created a striking series of photographs of Black men presented nude or in states of undress, their poses often recalling those of classical sculpture. As these images made their way into public view—via the 1982 book Black Males, a 1986 exhibition of the same name, and the 1988 publication Black Book—they were met with a range of responses, from disapproval of Mapplethorpe’s exoticization of Black masculinity, to identification with the same-sex desire reflected in his work, to recognition of how his pictures broke with Western art history’s long tradition of reserving the aesthetic ideal for white bodies alone. That these sentiments could coexist within the same viewer, and were not easily resolved, is evidenced in art historian Kobena Mercer’s recollection of his conflicted initial reception of Black Males:

When a friend lent me a copy of the book, it circulated between us as an illicit and highly problematic object of desire. We were fascinated by the beautiful bodies and drawn in by the pleasure of looking as we went over the repertoire of images again and again. We wanted to look, but we didn’t always find what we wanted to see. We were, of course, disturbed by the racial dimension of the imagery and, above all, angered by the aesthetic objectification that reduced these black male bodies to abstract visual ‘things,’ silenced in their own right as subjects …

Mercer’s complex account suggests some of the ways in which issues of race, sexuality, class, and gender all converge in Mapplethorpe’s series, enmeshing photographs like the one seen here in a knotty web of social and emotional significance.

Medium Photogravure with silkscreen and watercolor
Dimensions 30 x 24 3/4 in.
Donor Gift of the Cottrell-Lovett Collection
Credit Line Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Object ID 2021.5.30


Collection Years: 1985