A New Muse: Robert Mapplethorpe and Lisa Lyon

“I’d never seen anybody that looked like that before. Once she took her clothes off, it was like seeing something from another planet.”

– Robert Mapplethorpe on Lisa Lyon

Robert Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s BodyBuilding Champion, at a party in SoHo in 1979 where her black rubber outfit caught Mapplethorpe’s eye. At the time, Mapplethorpe, who had garnered the attention of the art world for his explicit gay and sadomasochistic photographs, was searching for a new project so as not to be pinned down with a reputation for creating artworks only for their shock value. Their meeting allowed Mapplethorpe to continue exploring classical body ideals while broadening his view to the female form and sparked a photographic collaboration, which lasted six years. Here Jessica Hunter, our photographs and photobooks cataloguer, explores the pair’s artistic relationship.

A New Kind of Collaboration

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, silver print, 1982.
Image Courtesy of LACMA.

Lyon proved an unusual collaborator for the artist who was working primarily with gay culture. Having said “photographing women is not the experience I am seeking”, Mapplethorpe found Lyon an exception to his rule, providing him with an outlet to experiment with topics he was already interested in: identity, femininity and masculinity, and classical ideals of the human body. Part of Mapplethorpe’s attraction to Lyon as a model was her ability to blur the aesthetic gender binary. To Mapplethorpe, Lyon encompassed a new concept of femininity with her striking face and curvaceous body, redefining the classic female form with more masculine musculature.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, silver print, 1981, printed 1990.
Image Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Unlike most typical photographer and model relationships, Lyon was a collaborator rather than just a subject for Mapplethorpe. In a 1980 publication of ArtForum, which featured six images from the series with Lyon, Lyon was quoted saying she viewed herself as a performance artist more than a bodybuilder. The merging of Mapplethorpe’s interest in form and Lyon’s view of herself gave way to an amazing body of work (approximately 200 photographs) making Lyon Mapplethorpe’s most photographed subject.

ArtForum and the Photobook

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, silver print, 1982. Sold December 12, 2013, in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $7,500.

The 1980 publication of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Lyon in ArtForum provided an opening for a book contract with Viking Press. After that, Mapplethorpe and Lyon worked on photographs for the book over the following two years, culminating in an exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1983 where the book was released in conjunction with the show, which received mixed reviews for its depiction of feminine sexuality, possibly due to Mapplethorpe’s male (though queer) gaze. Of the project, Mapplethorpe stated “I wanted to do a book that had a mass audience…. I didn’t see any point in just doing a book that would reach only photography people… I was attempting to make the best selling book ever made”.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, silver print, 1981.
Image Courtesy of LACMA.

In the series, Mapplethorpe depicts Lyon in various poses, settings, and attire. In each image, Lyon’s physical strength plays as large a role as her beauty. The dramatic lighting and tight composition of the images are reminiscent of studies of classical sculpture’s idealized bodies. Portraying Lyon in a variety of settings, the images explore masculinity and femininity as social constructions, highlighting the diversity of beauty and desirability across cultures. The roles and identities Lyon and Mapplethorpe explored ranged from fashion-focused images of Lyon in couture clothing, seductive lingerie and dominatrix poses, body-building poses, lounged poses reminiscent of classical art, and a series of images that focus on specific aspects of Lyon’s body from isolated depictions of Lyon’s toned legs to her feminine facial features.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, oversize silver print, one of an edition of one, 1980. Estimate $30,000 to $45,000. At Auction June 11, 2020 in Fine Photographs.

An example can be seen in this oversize silver print in our upcoming sale of Fine Photographs taken early in Lyon and Mapplethorpe’s relationship, and the opening image for the series published by ArtForum. The photography uses the contrast of the black-veiled and clothed body and dark background to isolate and emphasize Lyon’s arm and musculature, creating a commentary on classical idealized bodies, gender and our interaction with these terms.

Like all Mapplethorpe’s photographs, print quality was of utmost importance, and he relied on master printers to obtain the quality he wanted in his photographs. He hired photographer Tom Baril in 1979 to print his work, allowing Mapplethorpe to maintain a great amount of control over the process. Mapplethorpe often spent days working on printing single images and making edits. For this reason, the print quality of his work is spectacular in itself with rich tones and high contrast.

Despite the lukewarm reception of the series by contemporaries, these images continue to challenge our views of the human form, gender roles, and identity in striking black and white. With this series Mapplethorpe was, perhaps, ahead of his time.

More from Jessica Hunter: Collector’s Guide: Photo Editions Explained.

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