Robert Mapplethorpe is celebrated for his black-and-white photographs of still life subjects as well as his intimate and provocative portraits of celebrities, nudes, and the artist himself. He received his BFA in 1970 from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His images of subjects in New York’s S & M scene and homoerotic images of friends, lovers, and others in his community sparked a national conversation around erotic representation, obscenity, and free speech. In 1990, the ICA presented Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment amidst the culture wars. A nationwide controversy arose around the artist’s work and engendered critical dialogue, amongst many issues, around censorship and institutional responsibility. Facing an AIDS diagnosis in 1986, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the artist broadened his photographic practice. The year before his death, Mapplethorpe established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to “protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about,” including supporting AIDS and HIV medical research as well as photography.
Belly Button demonstrates Mapplethorpe’s interest in the body, particularly the fragmented as well as idealized male body. By cropping the image, the artist brings close attention to the musculature of the torso—evocative of classical sculpture—highlighted by the undulating shadows and glistening light over the abdomen of this anonymous body. The navel is the central focus and alludes to Mapplethorpe’s Catholic faith, as the belly button symbolizes life and birth. In a related work, Belly Button Cross (1986), the artist silk-screened a red cross with the belly button in the center over a similar photograph.
As a critical figure in the history of art, the politics of identity, and as an artist whose work has been part of the ICA’s exhibition program in the past, Mapplethorpe is an important addition to the museum’s collection. Additionally, this work will also expound upon the ICA’s strong holdings of photography, in dialogue with artists exploring identity and the body such as Jimmy DeSana, Nan Goldin, and Collier Schorr in the collection.