Words like significant, legendary and iconic are often used to describe photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the multi-hyphenated (singer-songwriter-poet-author-rock star) Patti Smith. While flattering, the way these two artists lived and created – or, rather, lived to create – defied (and in Smith’s case continues to defy) even the most favorable definitions.
Thus, designing and implementing “Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light,” the sixth Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition Series at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, was an exciting and complex mission for Curator at Large Carol Ockman and David Berry, vice president for visitor engagement and chief museum curator.
“Both artists were brilliant at their craft. They were pioneers in their respective areas, did groundbreaking work, and remain the best exemplars of (that work),” said Berry.
However, not everyone is aware of their significant contribution to the cultural canon of art, music and literature.
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That’s why the exhibit, which opens Feb. 13, had to “depict the historical sweep of the times the artists lived, and their relationship with each other,” explained Ockman, who is also the Robert Sterling Clark professor of art history emerita at Williams College in Massachusetts.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met in 1967 in New York City during a time of massive cultural upheaval. The two artists lived together as lovers at first and then remained lifelong friends and soulmates until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989.
In 1970, when Mapplethorpe turned from mixed-media collage to photography, it was considered “the stepchild of painting and sculpture,” said Ockman. By the 1980s he had raised its status and value, solidifying the legitimacy of the medium.
Patti Smith’s high-energy performance style led her to become a global rock star. But that trajectory began when she started reciting poetry in bars before the bands went on stage, which led to her experimenting with merging poetry with music. The shift was a natural extension of her artistry de ella with words and another way to get her voice heard.
Despite Mapplethorpe’s masterful photographs of men in sadomasochistic clothing and situations, and Patti Smith’s reputation as a punk rocker, both artists often portrayed flowers and nature in their work.
“Mapplethorpe is the consummate photographer for images of flowers,” said Ockman, noting that selections in the exhibit were printed at the University of South Florida, Tampa’s Graphicstudio.
Nature also flutters throughout the range of Smith’s lyrics, poetry and literary nonfiction. The challenge was how to exhibit those words. Berry explained that while music will most definitely be heard, visuals were made from various texts, including the lyrics to the song “Wild Leaves,” which Smith wrote for Mapplethorpe after his longtime lover of him died of AIDS and he, too, was falling victim to the disease.
Smith has also written directly about Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs. The eulogistic, “A Final Flower,” was authored as a forward to Mapplethorpe’s posthumous book “Flowers.”
“He came, in time, to embrace the flower as the embodiment of all contradictions revealing within…. Often they were symbolic of him, his processes of him. Modeled in geometric shade. Modified in a famous vase and inevitably turned in the realm of their own simplicity – the blossoming of the mystifying aspects of the pure.”
The originality that streamed forth from both artists was also the result of their continual search for the perfect form to communicate what they were seeing. And, as Smith quotes Mapplethorpe in “Just Kids,” her Ella National Book Award-winning memoir about their time together, “Nobody sees the way we do, Patti.”
Within their shared quest to portray an idea, or communicate a vision, the two artists “didn’t differentiate between forms,” said Ockman.
“My attitude when I photograph a flower today isn’t different from when I portray a penis,” Mapplethorpe has famously said.
“One of the great things about Mapplethorpe’s so-called controversial erotic art, is he represented a population that had never been seen in the realm of art before, (and) he had the credentials and the talent to get those photographs on the walls of the Whitney Museum of Art,” said Ockman. In doing so, he called attention to and immortalized a gay community that was devastated by AIDS in the 1980s.
“If it wasn’t for Mapplethorpe, those people wouldn’t be part of the cultural lexicon,” she added.
Smith’s work, then and now, embodies her desire to speak for and to the people. Her 1975 debut album, “Horses,” was a masterpiece of rock and roll poetry. It also featured her now-famous photographic portrait of her, taken by Mapplethorpe.
But Smith has stated that her wider mission was to reach out to other disenfranchised people. In an interview by Terry Gross for NPR, she explained. “Kids, like me, who were a little weird or a little different were often persecuted in their small towns. It was for any reason – for being an artist, for being different, for having political views, for just wanting to be free.”
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Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light
The exhibit opens Feb. 13 and runs through June 26, 2022, at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. To learn more, go to selby.org.