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A yearlong exhibition project in two parts, Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now explores the full range of the artist’s practice as well as his complex legacy in the field of contemporary art.

One of the most critically acclaimed and controversial American artists of the late twentieth century, Robert Mapplethorpe created daring and formally rigorous photographs. He is widely known for images that deliberately transgressed social mores and for the censorship debates that transformed him into a symbol of the culture wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the ensuing decades, artists and critics have grappled with Mapplethorpe’s legacy, raising questions about the agency of the photographic subject and interrogating his representations of homoerotic desire, the black male nude, and the female figure. A yearlong exhibition project in two parts, Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now explores the full range of the artist’s practice as well as his complex legacy in the field of contemporary art.

In 1993 the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation gifted the Guggenheim 194 key examples of the artist’s work, as well as a generous financial donation to support their entry into the collection and to name the gallery in which this exhibition is presented. This transformative gift initiated the museum’s photography program and catalyzed its collection of the medium. The first part of Implicit Tensions (January 25–July 10, 2019) featured highlights from the Guggenheim’s in-depth Mapplethorpe holdings, including early Polaroids, collages, and mixed-media constructions; iconic, classicizing photographs of male and female nudes; floral still lifes; portraits of artists, celebrities, and acquaintances; explicit depictions of New York’s underground S&M scene; and searingly honest self-portraits.

Alongside a focused selection of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, the second part of Implicit Tensions (July 24, 2019–January 5, 2020) showcases the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, artists who offer expansive approaches to exploring identity through photographic portraiture. Following Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Glenn Ligon created Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), an incisive response to Mapplethorpe’s depictions of nude black men. Ligon’s seminal work galvanized critical dialogues around histories of representation by contextualizing these images within larger cultural discussions about race and sexuality. Taking Ligon’s project as a starting point, this presentation traces how artists have variously claimed, diverged from, and critically charted the implications and power dynamics of Mapplethorpe’s images, providing nuanced perspectives about identity and difference. Rather than mapping a trajectory of influence, this exhibition suggests a two-way effect: as these artists create new meanings and possibilities for photographic experimentation on their own terms, they also produce counterpoints that challenge and reframe understandings of Mapplethorpe’s practice. The works on view demonstrate a variety of strategies that have evolved within the field of photography during the last three decades, including the construction of identity through self-portraiture, the affirmation of community through photographic representation, and the conception of art as a vehicle for social advocacy.

This exhibition is organized by Lauren Hinkson, Associate Curator, Collections, and Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, with Levi Prombaum, Curatorial Assistant, Collections.