Behold the Lowly Vessel : Robert Mapplethorpe

  • Introduction

    Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of flowers are well known, and recognizable for their delicate yet erotic beauty. What is less discussed is the role of the specific set of objects often appearing within their carefully constructed compositions. Frequently drawn from the artist’s collection, the vases and bowls found in these still lifes reveal a deep appreciation for design – reflecting the confident eye and regard for classical form exemplified by his photographic work. It is the connection between the two, that forms the starting point of Behold the Lowly Vessel. Presented at Galerie Thomas Schulte, the exhibition takes a distinctive point of view, bringing thoughtful arrangements of Mapplethorpe’s photographs together with a private collection of vases inspired by them.


    Here, the photographs are likewise presented in discrete collections – formed out of repetitions, symmetries and affinities, as well as playing at times with dichotomies in an echo of Mapplethorpe’s own approach. Sculptural, sensuous images of both flora and the human body give the impression of rising, radiating, blossoming. Amid monochrome backgrounds and simple geometries, strong lines, curved or outstretched, are accentuated by the chiseled bodies of dancers and nudes. These are full of vitality or otherwise laden with potential, offering provocative, unobstructed views or truncated and tightly framed to pique our curiosity. The deliberate capture of light and shadow is highly measured at times and Caravaggesque at others, instilled with a sense of drama and expressivity in the features that emerge out of darkness.


    Highlighted throughout is the consistency with which Mapplethorpe depicts his different subjects; his continuous pursuit of perfection in form; that there is no black-and-white, but many shades of grey. The correspondences between individual works are amplified, while further narrative possibilities begin to take shape.


    If we turn our attention specifically to the photographs of flowers, we discover not only a rich botanical variety, but also a broad range of objects: among them, early 20th-century American hammered-copper vessels, mid-century Scandinavian ceramics and glass, and exquisite and unusual examples of Italian Murano glass. At once figures in Mapplethorpe’s images and decorations for his home, they contain a certain intimacy, heightened by the intricate manner in which they are portrayed. What we encounter on entering the gallery are close counterparts: ushering another layer of life into the space, as vessels for another story.


    Robert Mapplethorpe’s colleague, Dimitri Levas, was tasked with selecting the flowers.  With his own discerning eye for beauty, Levas scoured flea markets to find the treasures that he then provided to the artist. This process is reversed, in a way, by the self-described hunter-gatherer whose collection of vessels is presented here. Careful study of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and subsequent research was undertaken to identify the vessels and their creators and locate objects bearing as close a resemblance as possible.


    An exhibition that began with a vase ultimately reflects a personal journey through Mapplethorpe’s work and its profound resonances.


    Within these layers and intersections of personal histories, inspirations, explorations, and devotions, we’re moved to make discoveries of our own. We follow intimate moments of exchange as they carry through the spaces of the gallery: from the elegant swells and curves of a vase to the suggestive droop of a flower, through the expressive sweep of a dancer’s arm. Rather than a linear path, it is a continuous process of return. Through it, the vessels, in both image and object, achieve a certain fullness, springing to life through a well of associations, memories, and emotions.


    Text by Julianne Cordray




  • Inquire about works by Robert Mapplethorpe
    Inquire about works by Robert Mapplethorpe
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