Robert Mapplethorpe

American, 1946–1989

Lisa Lyon, 1981
Gelatin silver print, 19 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.

Museum purchase, Wachenheim Family Fund, M.2017.11

During two separate week-long sessions between 1979 and 1981, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe took hundreds of photographs of bodybuilder and model Lisa Lyon. In this full-length nude portrait, her upper torso twists away from the camera. Her bottom half remains rigid as she extends her arm backward into space, giving her the appearance of swimming, falling from flight, or reacting to a physical stimuli the viewer cannot see. Mapplethorpe’s gelatin silver print—with its slick, luminous surface and intricate gradations of black and white—gives Lyon’s form the appearance of a classical sculpture, frozen in mid-motion. The play of shadow and light across the contours of Lyon’s body accentuates the musculature of her legs and arms and demonstrates Mapplethorpe’s understanding of the cultural context of androgyny in the classical female nude. Mapplethorpe considered this, and his other portraits of Lyon, as a “collaboration,” crediting the model with suggesting some of his most iconic images.

A captivating and rare photograph—only ten prints of this image were authorized by the artist—this is the first work by Mapplethorpe to enter WCMA’s collection.

About the artist

Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer, known for his sensitive yet unabashed treatment of controversial subject matter in highly stylized black and white photography. His subjects include celebrities, pornographic film stars, male and female nudes, self-portraits, and still lifes. His most contentious work depicted the underground S&M scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s of New York City. The homoeroticism of this work fueled a national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork. In the 1980s, he concentrated on studio photography, primarily of nudes, flowers, and formal portraits. Regardless of subject matter, Mapplethorpe was interested in the formal elements of composition, texture, balance, and, most of all, beauty. Over the course of his career, he introduced and refined many different  techniques including color 20×24 inch Polaroids, photogravures, platinum prints on paper and linen, and Cibachrome and dye transfer color prints.