They knew each other before their art would change the world. And now their art has inspired a living exhibition.
The stark and alluring images created by famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and poet/rock star Patti Smith, masters in their chosen mediums, form the basis for “Flowers, Poetry & Light,” an immersive exhibit at Selby Gardens inspired by their work.
The late Mapplethorpe and Smith met while they were still creative and ambitious youngsters, and they nurtured each other through the early stages of their artistic maturation. The exhibit, which features flowers and foliage framed by light and shadows, is meant to evoke the spirit of nature which played a dominant role in both of their work.
Jennifer Rominiecki, chief executive officer of Selby Gardens, said Mapplethorpe was one of the first artists she thought of when she made a list of potential botanical garden exhibits. And the more she researched, the more she became in love with the project.
“He’s so well known for his nudes, his portraits, his still lifes, but there’s a significant body of his work that is flowers,” says Rominiecki. “Arguably, he’s the best flower photographer that ever existed. He’s the foremost photographer of the late 20th century.”
Mapplethorpe and Smith both made their mark on pop culture; but what’s interesting is how they made their mark on each other.
Smith wrote a moving account of their lives together in her memoir, “Just Kids,” and she called Mapplethorpe “the artist of my life.” Smith had just arrived in New York when they met, and Mapplethorpe helped her navigate her early days in the city.
They eventually became lovers and lifelong friends. Smith’s work of her in a book store helped support Mapplethorpe in his early artistic days of her, and in time, his photographs of her became covers to her albums of her. Smith wrote an essay for her posthumous collection of her, “Flowers,” and she ultimately wrote her memoir of their time together because she had promised Mapplethorpe she would.
“They met when they were 20 years old and they were born like a month apart in 1946,” says Dr. Carol Ockman, Selby Gardens’ curator at large. “They forged a lifelong friendship starting from the minute they laid eyes on each other. According to Patti Smith, Robert was actually asleep looking his beautiful, angelic self from him. When he awakened, they started talking and they quickly moved in together.”
Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, worked largely in black-and-white photography, and a lot of the displays in “Flowers, Poetry & Light” play with shadows to evoke his work.
But the exhibit also features dazzling color inspired by the rich and varied textures of Smith’s poetry.
The experience begins even before you enter the gardens. Out front, there’s a distinctive trumpet tree, and it’s been encased in a box that seems a bit like a picture frame. Mike McLaughlin, the senior vice president for horticulture at Selby Gardens, said that the exhibit’s goal was to lift nature to the level it attains in a Mapplethorpe photo study.
“What does an artist do when they take a photograph?” he asks. “They remove the plant from its normal context — nature — and have really focused on it. They’ve removed the background. They’ve put a frame around it so all of the viewer’s attention is focused on that object.”
As you move through Selby Gardens, there are 10 distinct visiting stops with different motifs. The tropical conservatory is meant to evoke a photographer’s studio and gallery, and the grid-like backdrop at the koi pond is inspired by the viewfinder in a camera.
Everywhere you look, there are plants and flowers boxed and framed.
Smith’s iconic “Horses” album cover, shot by Mapplethorpe, greets you in the tropical conservatory, and the album plays as you walk through and experience the exhibit. Placards with Smith’s lyrics are placed strategically around the grounds of the botanical garden.
The exhibit becomes more personal at the Museum of Botany and Arts, where visitors are greeted with a large silk screen image of the artists. The museum houses souvenirs from Mapplethorpe and Smith’s early life as artists, and a few of the photographer’s most famous images are on loan from the University of South Florida, where I produced them.
Ockman said that Mapplethorpe may have taken his art in a different direction had he been born in a different century.
“He loved sculpture,” says Ockman of Mapplethorpe’s legacy. “But he said that the contemporary pace of life did not allow him to use that particular medium. One of the reasons he turned to photography is it enabled him to capture the contemporary speed of life.”
Smith, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, graced Selby Gardens on Tuesday with a performance and a conversation about her life in art. The exhibit uses the words of her memoir of her, “Just Kids,” to illustrate her relationship with Mapplethorpe, and Rominiecki said they tell an artist’s love story that will stand the test of time.
“Their relationship was really formative to both of each other’s practice in artistic output,” says Rominiecki. “She actually wrote about Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers. There was all this terrific synergy around putting these two artists in dialogue together and looking at them through the lens of their connection to flowers and nature.”
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