Polaroids: Mapplethorpe @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): 90 small black and white images, all approximately 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 (or the reverse), displayed in two rows, two images high, in white frames, in one room. Found in the hard to get to Mezzanine gallery (up to the top floor, through the permanent collection, down the back stairs by the Calders). Mostly portraits and self-portraits, with a mixture of other subjects as well. (Untitled (Self Portrait) 1973 at right. Copyright held by artist.)

Comments/Context: All of the images in this exhibition are from the period between 1970 and 1975, when Mapplethorpe was experimenting and learning how to be a photographer. Not surprisingly, there are many “exercises” in form, camera angle, framing, and the usage of light. The subject matter is the stuff of his everyday life: his friends, their apartments, their things. The images are intimate, personal, and sometimes lovely. (Untitled (Catherine Tennant’s House, London) 1973 at right. Copyright held by artist.) You can also see how Mapplethorpe was beginning to think about paring down an image, to get at its essence, even if that image was therefore a bit more staged.
As I walked through the show, I kept coming back to the similarities between this early work and the work of Francesca Woodman. (There was an excellent show of her work at Marian Goodman last fall.) Her photographs also have an experimental feel, with a personal, and feminine, point of view. It would be fascinating to see these two shown together.
Collectors POV: As collectors of floral/botanical images, Mapplethorpe is clearly a core artist for us, and adding one of the florals from this early work would help show the evolution of his style of image making. Nearly all the images in the exhibition are held by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation (website here), although a few Polaroids can be found out in the marketplace as well. Given Mapplethorpe’s popularity, there are a large number of galleries and dealers who carry his work (42 on artnet); we have had success working with Sean Kelly and Alison Jacques. At auction in the past few years, the Polaroids have been a relative bargain (compared to the iconic work), running in the $3000-7000 range.
Sylvia Wolf and the Whitney put out a nice monograph of the Polaroids in conjunction with the exhibition. While Mapplethorpe and The Complete Flowers would be Essential Reference on Mapplethorpe, this book is clearly POTS (Part of the Story) and therefore worth adding to your library.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)
Polaroids: Mapplethorpe
Through September 7th

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

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