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Because the Art

Sigalit Zetouni examines one of art's best friends, the Alsdorf Foundation, and an upcoming Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.

    Robert Mapplethorpe (b. 1946) grew up in a middle-class Roman Catholic family in Floral Park, a neighborhood of Long Island, New York, where the streets bore floral names rooted in the locale’s history of horticultural industry. He was the third of six children and his early teen years were spent in a rather safe and uneventful environment. In the 1960s, Mapplethorpe’s environment transformed as the volatile civil rights protests were storming the nation, and after graduating from high school, Mapplethorpe moved to a more urban setting to study painting, sculpture and graphic arts at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Later in his 20s, he met an aspiring young artist and musician named Patti Smith, who became well-known for her song, “Because the Night.” The two souls, who were at once drawn to each other, proceeded to live with one another in Manhattan, forming a strong friendship that encouraged each other’s artistic evolution.
      In Manhattan, Mapplethorpe was obsessed and inspired by gay culture and fashion, and the Polaroid instant camera triggered his photography experience. Evidently, the artist, who later became famous for his formal photographic creations of highly stylized beauty and compositional perfection, discovered the role of art in the field of photography rather differently. In 1970, filmmaker Sandy Daley lent him a Polaroid camera, and for the following five years, Mapplethorpe could not stop looking and capturing mates, moments, conditions and tensions, which surrounded his life and artistic development. With his Polaroid photos, Mapplethorpe was experimenting with models, flowers, portraits and sexuality, the subjects of his future work.
      His early work was marked with spontaneity and intimacy that could only be achieved by his unique artistic vision. For the young artist, looking through the camera was a way of satisfying his own curiosity. By 1975, Mapplethorpe had taken more than 1,500 Polaroid shots, and in his experience with the instant camera, he had also discovered the complexities and depth of the image as a work of art.
      In 1973, New York’s Light Gallery showed a selection of Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids, but the entire body of work was not exposed and remained virtually unknown for decades. In May of 2008, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, organized a special exhibition entitled, “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe.” One hundred works were displayed, from self-portraits to figure studies, still lifes to portraits of lovers and friends. Art historian Sylvia Wolf, the curator of the show, had also authored a new book that places this early work in the context of Mapplethorpe’s lifelong artistic production. Her critical analysis places Mapplethorpe firmly within the canon of 20th century art, along with Diane Arbus, E.J. Bellocq, as well as painters like Egon Schiele. The publishers included 183 early Polaroid works, many of which were not part of the Whitney’s exhibit.
    “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” is coming to Evanston next month. From January 13 through April 5, viewers can intimately experience the works at the Alsdorf Gallery of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern Universty. Marilyn Alsdorf, one of the exhibit’s donors, spoke to Chicago Life and expressed her excitement about the upcoming Mapplethorpe exhibit. Although her personal art collections did not include photography, she says, “If I were still collecting today, I would purchase works by Mapplethorpe.”
    Alsdorf, who studied journalism at Northwestern, began supporting the Block Museum in 1990, when the institution was still the Block Gallery. In 2000, when the institution reopened as the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in its new facility, Alsdorf supported, through the Alsdorf Foundation, the naming of the first floor gallery as the Alsdorf Gallery. The Alsdorf Gallery was officially dedicated in October of 2001. Alsdorf is also a founding member of the Block Museum’s Board of Advisors, which was organized in 2002.

Published: December 05, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide


Mapplethorpe is Amazing
I've always admired Mapplethorpe's work. Thanks for writing this interesting article as it really hits home. As a children's photographer, I can certainly appreciate his tremendous talent and artistic nature. Keep up the great journalism.
Shalimar, May-08-2009