​​Robert Mapplethorpe never intended to become a photographer – and he didn’t want to be known as one.

Instead, he hoped to create a broad visual language, with his camera pointed in many directions. He made drawings, sets, mixed media collages, moving image works and sculptures, in addition to the explosive photographic works that he began making in the 1960s, exploring the unexpected in New York’s underground scenes and documenting the city’s socialites. In his notable black and white studio works – whether still-lifes of flowers, nudes, portraits and self-portraits – Mapplethorpe’s vision of ‘perfection in form’ is electrifying. Among his prescient contributions to American culture was the challenge his work presented to public censorship and conservatism, catalysing wide debate on what should be defined as obscene.

An impressive retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work, 'The Perfect Medium', opens at two prominent Los Angeles institutes this week. The largest exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s archive and images to date – presented at the J Paul Getty Museum’s Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – traces the impact and legacy of one of America’ most influential artists.

The exhibition has been almost three years in the works. Britt Salvesen, curator of the exhibit at LACMA, explains the immense task of curating an exhibition on this scale: 'Paul Martineau [of the Getty] and I went through the editioned body of work (1,969 prints) and arrived at a long list of around 350 images. We then developed our exhibition checklists independently. When we reconvened, we discovered only a few overlaps, which were easily negotiated. We feel the two exhibitions represent different facets of Mapplethorpe's art and persona, while cumulatively indicating the range of his work and the depth of the archive.'

At the LACMA, large-scale colour prints from the mid-1980s and moving-image works from 1978 and 1984 give an idea of the development of Mapplethorpe’s practice and his technical mastery, while earlier works show the breadth of his inquiry as an artist, and his remarkable sensitivity.

At the Getty, meanwhile, lesser-known works such as Mapplethorpe’s small portraits of New York art dealers are among the highlights, as well as sections dedicated to his early portraits, the sculptural body, Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe’s studio practice, the shaping of his legacy, his flowers, and his controversial retrospective exhibition 'The Perfect Moment'.

'One of the things I find exciting is that it gives us the opportunity to reevaluate Mapplethorpe’s work based on a much greater access to the materials,' says Getty Curator Paul Martineau. 'Since we acquired the archive and artwork from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation we have pretty much everything there is to have on Mapplethorpe. The ability to put things on view that haven’t been seen before, the ability to do research at the GRI [Getty Research Institute] and uncover new information makes it a really rich experience.'

There is, unavoidably, a melancholic atmosphere around Mapplethorpe’s works – AIDS cut his life tragically short in 1989. He was 42. 'This exhibition, occurring 25 years after the Culture Wars controversy, reminds us to commemorate the many people lost to AIDS, to celebrate advances in civil rights, and to value freedom of expression,' concludes Salvesen.