NSFW: The 6 Robert Mapplethorpe Photos That Almost Broke the Obscenity Laws

Right from the get-go, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography was always ripely provocative, but the following six images were so explicit, they were almost downright criminal.
A new HBO documentary, Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, takes an uncensored look at the iconic artist’s life and career. Our friends at HBO invited us to watch a special screening of this documentary at the Castro Theater last week, where our fascination with Mapplethorpe was reignited. From his ambitious beginnings on Bond Street to becoming the art-world’s premier enfant terrible, Robert Mapplethorpe pushed all boundaries to give us jaw-dropping works of art up until his dying day.

Related: Now You Can Own Andy Warhol’s Most Explicit Works of Art [NSFW]

In 1989, just months after the artist’s untimely death, Robert Mapplethorpe’s touring exhibit The Perfect Moment stirred the biggest nationwide controversy. The exhibit, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, featured never-before-seen images from Mapplethorpe’s BDSM-inspired X Portfolio. The portfolio’s photos depicting fisting, piss play and a very-transgressive self-portrait were deemed obscene, which meant that displaying them in public was actually against the law.

In an effort to promote censorship, conservative lawmakers at the time strongly believed that government funding should not go towards art institutions that hosted the exhibit, including D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center. Facing mounting pressure, the Corcoran Gallery canceled the exhibit, but the CAC stuck to its guns and was taken to court for breaking obscenity laws. According to The New York Times, it was “the first criminal trial of an art museum arising from the contents of an exhibition.”

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In court, art experts testified that even Mapplethorpe’s most explicit images had serious artistic value, and were therefore not pornographic nor obscene. The jury agreed, siding with the art institution exercising its freedom of speech in display such images. Out of the 175 photos in The Perfect Moment, only six of them were brought into question as being obscene. Here they are in all their uncensored glory.

If you want to see these images on the big screen, Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premieres on HBO on April 4.

Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait

Robert Mapplethorpe NSFW Self-Portrait BullwhipWith this defiant, bullwhip-wielding self-portrait, Mapplethorpe is fearlessly objectifying himself.

Jim and Tom, Sausalito

Robert Mapplethorpe Jim and Tom SausalitoMapplethorpe’s ode to the infamously naughty gay BDSD underground of the 70’s.

John, NYC

Robert Mapplethorpe John NYCMapplethorpe believed that art was all about opening ourselves up. Clearly.

Lou, NYC

Robert Mapplethorpe Lou NYCClench your pearls.

Joe, NYC

Robert Mapplethorpe Joe Man in SuitNot particularly provocative until you learn that the mouth tube was typically connected to another man’s enema.

Helmut and Brooks, NYC


Jacquelynn Baas, director of the University Art Museum at the University of California at Berkeley, testified during the trial that this image was art because of the tension between the beautiful quality of the photograph and the “brutal nature of what’s going on in it.”

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Comments (7):

  • Noel Adolph (@noelsterLA)

    Just saw the exhibit of these today at the Getty. As I made my way across the viewing table (they are encased in a long, black table, under glass, with signs posted warning sensitive viewers of their content), a woman dragged her two friends over to the last photo, Mapplethorpe’s self portrait with bullwhip, and exclaimed “Look! Look! so disgusting!” pointing at the photo. Her two friends, a male and female, looked at the photo. The man asked “wonder who took the photo” while the woman quickly backed away, her face frozen in disgust. They quickly walked out of the exhibit room, the first woman saying “I do like the pictures of the flowers though…”
    I just laughed a little to myself, and shook my head. But thinking back on it, Its amazing that these photographs have the power to shock and create controversy, even in a place like Los Angeles.

    • ajseattle@icloud.com

      Of course, there is the aspect that she just HAAAD to call her friends over and look at “the disgusting” rather than let them know to avoid it. I think the bullwhip is fairly tame, when you (I) think about it. So much disgust comes from parts of the body themselves being “bad” or “disgusting”. People’s negative relationship with their assholes is kinda sad, IMO.

  • Perfectly erotic.

  • The testimony affirming the photos as art rests on their juxtaposition of beautiful quality and brutal nature. To me that’s a little droll.
    As Ansel Adams shows, printing your own pictures is a major step in the art of photography. Before Photoshop, skill mediating the amount of light precisely by hand was hard won by masters and vital to producing photos of museum quality. Mapplethorpe’s earliest works were polaroids. But lacking the skills to finish perfectly his later medium-format photos couldn’t hold him back from his explorations. Art—like murder—will out.
    I know this because, on a New York flight, I once sat next to the young Newyorican who printed Mapplethorpe’s photographs. I thought of that talented, unsung artist later during the protest at the Corcoran, which had buckled to Congress and rejected the show. There we watched his exquisitely printed, forbidden images and many others projected 4-storeys tall on the side of the pristine museum exterior.

  • please tell me the name of the printer of mapplethorpe’s photographs. thank you. did he print the flowers as well?

  • Meryl Streep is a Blubbering Moron – HalfGuarded.com

    […] of taxpayer-funded works like Chris Ofili’s photos of crucifixes submerged in his own piss and Robert Mapplethorpe’s enlightening gallery of S&M freaks having their anuses fisted and pi… as much as I do Thursday Night Football. FOR SHAME that I’d rather watch the College Football […]

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