The Robert Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial (1990): Selected Links & Bibliography
by Cynthia L. Ernst

Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989:  Robert Mapplethorpe was born the third of six children in Long Island, New York, of English and Irish heritage.  Mapplethorpe grew up as a Roman Catholic and attended Mass at Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Floral Park, Long Island, New York.  He died on the morning of March 9, 1989, in a Boston, Massachusetts hospital from complications arising from AIDS; he was 42 years old.  His ashes were buried in Queens, New York, in his mother’s grave, marked “Maxey”.

Nation’s First Criminal Trial of an Art Museum Over Content of an Exhibition:  

Indictment:  Hamilton County grand jury accuses the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, of two misdemeanor counts each: pandering and using minors in pornography.  For Mr. Barrie, the charges carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and fines of up to $2,000; for the art center, the maximum fine is $10,000.  Defendants:  Dennis Barrie and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center

Place: Cincinnati, Ohio

Dates of Trial:  September 24-October 5, 1990

Judge:  David J. Albanese

Jury:  Four men and four women

Verdict:  Not guilty

Significance:  The acquittal of the Mapplethorpe defendants was a major reaffirmation of First Amendment freedom of speech protection in the new realm of homosexual art.  It also reaffirmed the obscenity principles of Miller v. California.

Dates of Importance:

1965- President Johnson signs into law the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.  The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is created.

1965-1988- The NEA begins with a budget of $2.4 million and ends up exceeding $167 million.

June 1989- The Washington Project for the Arts announces its plans to show Mapplethorpe’s, The Perfect Moment.  More than 100 members of Congress criticize the NEA for supporting Mapplethorpe’s works. 

July 1989- Senator Jessie Helms (R.-N.C.) proposes an amendment to an Interior Department bill that would prohibit the NEA from using funds for the “dissemination, promotion, or production of obscene or indecent materials or materials denigrating a particular religion.  The amendment does not pass. Congress does reach a compromise on the NEA’s 1990 Appropriations Bill containing restrictions affecting NEA grant making procedures.

April 1990- The Perfect Moment opens to the public in Cincinnati.  

The Perfect Moment:  In the spring of 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, held an exhibit of photographs by the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe.  This exhibit titled, The Perfect Moment was controversial in nature from the very onset.  There was a great deal of negative public reaction and an attempt to close the exhibit citing the Ohio obscenity statute, which makes it illegal for any person to “Promote, display…or exhibit… any obscene material.”

Of the 175 pictures in the exhibit, 7 were extremely controversial making them the focus of the ensuring trial.  Two of the pictures were of naked minors, one male and one female, with a “lewd exhibition or graphic focus on the genitals.”  The other five objectionable pictures were of five men posing in unusual sadomasochistic poses.


His Work:  Mapplethorpe received a B.F.A. from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  His first works incorporated many photographic images from sources including pages torn from magazines and books.  He then began taking photographs using a Polaroid camera.  His works first achieved notoriety for his celebration and documentation of New York’s gay community.

Mapplethorpe’s favorite human subjects were himself and his close friend, poet and singer, Patti Smith.  His portraits of Smith capture his subject as lonely, independent, sensitive and wild. Andy Warhol, Richard Gere and Grace Jones were also among some of his famous subjects.  He also expressed his art via pictures of composers, socialites, pornographic film stars and members of the S & M underground. Mapplethorpe’s art was explicit in nature often depicting sexual organs and bondage equipment with his subjects being adorned in leather, spikes, and chains.


Influence Behind Mapplethorpe’s Work: Raised in a strict Catholic family, Mapplethorpe was influenced by the rigidity of his religion.  His cross imagery and its accompanying symmetry is a recurring theme in his works.  He was very conscious of the religious undertones in his pieces and once was quoted in an interview as saying, “I was a Catholic boy, I went to church every Sunday.  A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child.  It still shows in how I arrange things.  It’s always little altars.”

Mapplethorpe’s rigidity and symmetry carries over into his nudes. “Thomas” depicts a muscular black man enclosed within a circular barrier with arms stretched 180 degrees to push against his cage.  This work is a vivid example of rigidity and symmetry that Mapplethorpe so often captured.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait  1978

The collector Sam Wagstaff, left, and the photographer and
 Robert Mapplethorpe in a 1974 portrait by Francesco Scavullo

It has been suggested that Sam Wagstaff, a legendary figure in the international art world of the 1970’s and 80’s is the man who made Mapplethorpe into the icon that he would become.  Wagstaff was one of the first private art collector’s to start buying photographs as early as 1973, long before there was a serious market for Mapplethorpe.  Mr. Wagstaff affectionately called Mapplethorpe “my sly little pornographer.”

Further Reading

Cembalest, Robin. "Who Does it Shock? Why Does it Shock?" Artnews (March 1992): 32-33.

—. "The Obscenity Trial: How They Voted to Acquit." Artnews (December 1990): 136-141.

Gurstein, Rochelle. "Current Debate: High Art or Hard-Core? Misjudging Mapplethorpe: the Art Scene and the Obscene." Tikkun (November-December 1991): 70-80.

Light, Judy. "Jury Acquits Museum in Landmark Art Trial." Dancemagazine (December 1990): 12-13.

External links

The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation website

Exhibitions with Robert Mapplethorpe

Biography from the Guggenheim Museum

Robert Mapplethorpe at the Internet Movie Database

Robert Mapplethorpe at

Robert Mapplethorpe at Xavier Hufkens

Famous Trials Website