|curator's statement||april 2011 selection|
t h e a r c h i t e c t u r e o f l o s s : m a r k m o r r i s r o e , 1 9 5 9 - 1 9 8 9
w e b g a l l e r y c u r a t e d b y r a f a e l s á n c h e z , i n c o n v e r s a t i o n w i t h s u r r o d n e y ( s u r )
I wonder how they will actually cease and come to an end as drawings, and into what new phases of being they will then enter.
Sur Rodney (Sur): Decades have passed now since Mark Morrisroe's untimely death. Until very recently his photography has been presented on occasion without any major acknowledgement of the artist's significance in relation to his influence. Seeing the immense body of work from the Morrisroe Estate's recent catalogue presently being put forward (Ringier Collection, Fotomuseum Winterthur) along with these non-photo works that were left to you by Mark, I'm beginning to recognize something that I hadn't considered before -- Morrisroe was using his photographed imagery as a canvas to paint on as well as using it as a template to make paintings and prints.
Rafael Sanchez: That is accurate both in that painting was a considerable aspect of Mark's mind-set and that there has been scant evidence of this in the way that his work has been presented up until very recently. In part this may be due to the intensity of Mark's biography that is evident as subject matter in much of his work. The main thing to keep in mind in this regard is that ultimately for Mark the chemistry and processes of photography were his painterly tools and that meaning was penultimate as techniques and explorations met with his primary subject, his life.
SRS: So that's to say that there was, in a sense, a kind of playful fusion going on. Looking back at what was happening in the New York art world of the 1980s, the decade of Mark's productive output, there was much inter-referencing and exchange between artists' production methods and mediums ... any given show at International With Monument, for example, was cause to consider this interface.
RS: And there was comedy involved, if you could sift through the rhetoric and art-speak. Mark was very aware and interested in that, the comedy. For example, there were a bunch of typed out jokes Mark came up with that he used to make a series of photograms with. One of them read, "What do cowboy hats and hemorrhoids have in common? Sooner or later every asshole gets one." That was partly directed at Richard Prince, whose Marlboro Man pieces were getting a lot of attention at the time.
SRS: The political climate of the 80s is often overlooked as well in terms of art production partially due to the big party that was going on. The term zeitgeist was often used in just about every piece of art criticism in those days. It was the Reagan era, which produced a kind of self-determination and economic boom on the one hand and a gross misappropriation of priorities on the other. The Cold War was being played out with death squads in Central America, Apartheid in South Africa and AIDS was at our doorstep in a very real way. New York City was simultaneously opulent and falling apart. Graffiti and Punk aesthetics were brought into the galleries with large bank accounts. Artist led coalitions like Group Material and ACT-UP were very effective in presenting a social criticism through a mixture of innovative media overlap. Morrisroe's work falls somewhere in between these extremes, in terms of social conscientiousness. Was any of this pertinent to his thinking?
RS: Once in New York Mark did not fit into any of this, though as Mark Dirt (his punk alias in Boston) and with DIRT magazine he had already qualified quite a punk reputation in Boston for himself at a very early age. That probably heightened his awareness of what was going on around him in New York to some extent. But one has to understand that he was not at all interested in politicizing his sexuality. He was completely open about it and it was part of him and his work as truth. Period. That was completely brave and political in itself. Even later as he was being destroyed by the disease that swallowed him whole, he chose to deal with it as an aesthete. Of course he was angry. Who wouldn't be? But it is a testament of strength that he stayed on point with his art as a playful source of creative purity. I'd also go as far as to say that art itself gave him strength in that fight. That being said, he understood that he had the power to challenge assumptions through his work and he very much enjoyed being provocative.
SRS: How did you come to know Mark?
RS: We both moved into the same apartment building in Jersey City around the same time in 1985. He was from Boston. I grew up in New Jersey. We were approximately the same age, we were both in our mid-20s, both artists, and got on very well. We wore the same size clothes. It's strange looking back as it became clear later that he had a very troubled past. But we got on very well and I think that he was making a new start for himself in coming to New York. I think that by not being part of his past, or tangled up in his immediate art world relationships, and since we were a bit on the outside by living in Jersey City, I was someone he could hang out with. It was very domestic. We helped each other, discussed art, and had great fun.
SRS: Do you remember your earliest impressions?
RS: He was very quiet at first, a bit mysterious maybe, as the new neighbor downstairs. There were all these bumpety-bump noises coming from his apartment for a few days. My sister Lourdes who was sharing the upstairs apartment with me and would also become close with Mark said that she had met the new neighbor and that he was an artist and very nice. It was very cold, I remember, so we had these heavy coats when Mark and I first met in the dark hallway late one afternoon. He had just come into the building and was having a hard time getting up the stairs ahead of me, he had a heavy limp. So we started to talk. That's when he told me that although he was considered a photographer, he was going to be very famous because he was really a painter. He made that very clear. He also said straight away that although he had Frank Sinatra's phrasing down pat, he fell just short of having Sinatra's vocal range, otherwise he would have managed to achieve fame much earlier as a singer. He spoke with a very strange piqued almost whiney inflection that made that statement difficult to believe, but it was completely endearing ... as was his desire for fame. There was something very matter-of-fact about it and brazen only in that fame is what most artists want but never say. That was my first impression.
SRS: That's very funny. It's as if he understood that being an artist was like being in show business.
RS: That was very clear and then more so as we got to know each other. In the initial encounters that followed between us he remained a bit reserved. Then one day I heard some rummaging in the hall outside our door. At the time I had been storing a large canvas I had made that was recently shown at Willie Cole's loft gallery in Newark that would not fit into the apartment because it was too big. It was entirely tarred and feathered, that was the piece, and it took up the hallway landing and it smelled a little bit. Well, Mark was out there checking it out, he was sniffing it, I came out and startled him and that's when we really got to talking ... he had actually come up with a plastic cup in hand to ask for some sugar as a pretext. I came to learn through that conversation that he was very careful about whom he allowed himself to get close to. It was important to him that he was part of Pat Hearn's gallery. She helped him land that apartment through Philip Taaffe and that Philip also lived in Jersey City. I already knew Philip's work at the time through his shows at Pat's and that I knew well of the work also enabled an interesting conversation with Mark. He was very interested in how Philip's painterly decisions translated into fame.
SRS: I was friendly with Pat Hearn at that time, this was before she opened her now legendary gallery in the East Village. Jimmy DeSana, whom I'd met years before Pat, became part of the gallery early on. Pat showed me some Polaroid prints by Mark that she was including in a show that she was preparing. At the time I was fascinated and puzzled as to how I hadn't known of his work before?
RS: Pat was Mark's strongest advocate. It is hard to imagine that any of his work would have survived at all if it wasn't for Pat Hearn. At the same time she was a business person and as a gallerist she felt that she had to be careful as to how Mark's work should be presented. This was not an easy task from where she was standing at the time.
SRS: Do you mean that despite all that was happening in the New York art scene there was marketing going on as well ... that presenting an artist was in a sense like packaging a product and in effect reflected on the gallery's overall mission?
RS: Well, I should make it very clear that as an artist I still find this aspect of the art world very distasteful. At the same time it is very interesting and, in conversation, it was for Mark also -- as to how an artist manages to channel their vision into the world ... how that relationship between the world and your studio occurs. Often it can very much affect the very nature of the work. Warhol is the great example of parlaying this and Warhol was also like the patron saint for '80s generation artists. It's fascinating, really. The particulars, however, can be very tedious and often the presenter or gallerist has to navigate that. In Mark's case, he relented to Pat's insights.
SRS: As we mentioned earlier, that was a time when the art market really exploded. Very young artists, mainly painters, were becoming famous for the amounts of money that their work could demand.
RS: Yes and this started to affect Mark's relationship with the gallery. I guess, in simplest terms, he wanted in on the action. Pat's focus was primarily on painting. Besides Philip Taaffe she was also showing Peter Shyuff and had put George Condo on the map among others. Mark knew all of these guys. His personal proximity to all of this and to what was being taken seriously by the art world / art market intensified his feeling marginalized. And it certainly didn't help to be stuck in Jersey City. Now Mark and Pat were old friends and they had achieved a certain level of notoriety through their work together in Boston. Suddenly the Boston contingent was in New York and who's deciding who's in or who's out? Mark was definitely "in" by being part of the gallery, but this wasn't Boston anymore and according to Pat his work would have to be built up. In the meantime he felt ready for his moment and even before he was diagnosed with AIDS, he somehow knew that he didn't have much time. This created a strain on their relationship. Noticeably around that time too, other artists that were testing the limits of photography began getting a lot of attention ... like Mike and Doug Starn who had actually gleaned quite a bit from what Mark was doing. They, at least, were generous about Mark's influence and included him into the conversation of their work publicly. And Nan Goldin burst onto the scene just as Mark got to town and Cindy Sherman was clearly on the landscape.
SRS: Photography as a medium was picking up steam very quickly, in a very aggressive way, art market-wise. Even painters were referring to photography very aggressively. Robert Longo, Michele Zalopany, David Salle, Richard Prince. And Cindy Sherman, of course, had presented a way to personalize a relationship to our mediated icons through photography.
RS: Photography as a medium always has this ability to record your own life. But first you have to have an interesting life. Otherwise it's just another scrapbook of memories. And Mark had that, an interesting life, in spades. In his own time it just wasn't seen as serious art. Partly, maybe, because even if it is said that he made up so many stories about his life, it was primarily all very true. I mean, anyone that knew him and knew the work was moved by his situation and the work's power. But there was always this thing about it being just a little too scary for people. For example, though he was fascinated by her success and the ground that she was breaking, he saw what Cindy Sherman was doing as relatively easy ... that the transformation involved in her work was not exceptionally transformational as it remained in the area of references. For Mark it remained "staged." The area between life and art was of a more intimate character for him. So he took the challenge of transformation through art much more seriously as it applied directly to who he was. That his own life, ambitions, desires and experiences somehow offered a template for the work as original subject matter towards truth. This was in essence his big challenge and what Pat was trying to do in pushing Mark to create very singular photographic masterpieces when he came to New York. She was right. And Mark took that challenge to heart. But he had his own way of doing that.
SRS: How did he proceed?
RS: First of all he did what he knew best. He questioned everything. His work was not riding on the surface of things. And he was funny ... humor was probably at the core of everything he did ... even in his most elegant work and in deepest heartbreak. I mentioned Warhol earlier. Mark couldn't get enough of Andy Warhol. He loved what Warhol achieved as a painter of photography. And surely you can see Warhol's drawings in Mark's drawings. Lately there's been discussion about how through photographing his friends Mark was cultivating a kind of superstar cult around him, like Warhol. Sure he had his favorites and thoroughly enjoyed playing with fame but most of his subjects, his friends, even at their most extravagant, like Tabboo!, are very shy and essentially intimates. He'd have his subjects then turn the camera back on him. Being very much aware of Warhol's practice, this approach turns the whole thing around. Most of Mark's self portraits were shot by his friends with his camera. And they are self portraits. He created the occasion, the invitation, the intimacy.
SRS: The most resolved works that he made in his later years in Boston and in the earliest years in New York, the very finished, say, masterpieces that the gallery was putting forward ... do you think that humor played into those works? I'm thinking of the luscious sandwich prints, for example.
RS: Of course. He was focusing on icons. At times architectural icons ... but more importantly, I think, atmosphere as icon: the sky, water, flesh ... light itself as something iconic. This enters the realm of photography in its truest sense, drawing with light. Even with the production stills from Nymph-O-Maniac, "Pia as Lady Hamlet", which later became a sequence of beautiful master prints. He's playing around with and poking at really huge icons and they are almost disappearing in this atmosphere. He felt a strong kinship with his subjects. He loved Shakespeare's bawdiness and wanted to be part of that. The story-telling. The thing that is so much part of this world and yet not ... the question. This was elaborated on the margins of the pictures (literally, Mark would write, draw and paint on the boarders of his photographs), with the humor intact. In Mark's lifetime, however, that was all matted out when framed and presented by the gallery. Cleaned up. So there was an intense self examination going on about what he, himself was doing ... and how it was being received. The work was appreciated as beautiful but, so what? He was taking it all step further but it was not being seen. It was all hanging out in the margins, covered up under everyone's noses. Postmodernism was the big "it" word but it was rarely recognized when someone actually practiced it. He had to accept this aspect of his own work as "underwear." He saw his work as painting, writing, performing, filming, publishing ... whatever. He had already proven himself in those ways in Boston and everyone that knew him from there now in New York knew that. And I might add that many ran with that ball that he pitched while he was somehow being left out of the game. So he was embarrassed by being seen solely as a "photographer." Like it was some kind of joke on him and he was stuck with it. So it made sense that he would poke fun right back at everything through his work while making it as beautiful as he possibly could. Especially anything that would threaten his work as a "lesser art" like painting. Because to him, he was painting (and writing) all along.
SRS: The pieces he made of actual painting and drawings that have survived, many of which he passed on to you, how would they pertain to this inner dialogue that seems to have been going on?
RS: I think that it was a dialogue that he was seeking with art, the world of art, and in the end he was not let inside to have. I have my own reasons for saying this from knowing Mark, but ultimately I can only refer to the pictures themselves, and I have to say that they are essentially comic. Pranks. Tragi-comic pranks even. Like Catskills Suicide. It speaks directly to Manet's late painting The Suicide (1877-81, Collection E.G. Bührle, Zurich). Manet also played with meaning. Then also back to Mark's ambition to be seen as a great painter. Anyone that was around him for that will tell you that he took great joy in doing these works, as stubborn-handed as they are. They could not be photographs or masterpieces or really appreciated on that level. He knew that. On the other hand they did have much to do with his need to experiment, to play around and send out messages that way. The need to make things. He once told me that as a child he liked to make mud pies. That really stuck with me. After all, the photo works were all handmade, unique works even in edition. It was a leprechaun's game of chemistry and timing. He'd retouch the photos with photo inks and dyes. He spent a lot of time on that.
SRS: "Retouch" is even misleading as it is a photographer's term.
RS: Right. In Mark's case he was making very intricate, intuitive decisions about placing colors. If there was a hair or dust spec on the negative that came through on the print, say on a purple field, he'd hit it with yellow or green and so on. And the notes and poetry and scrawls on the "periphery" of the image came from that process. Then, if one stops to think about it, the techniques that he incorporated in making these paintings relate back to making photos. Like painting on glass, as with the coffee cup Still Life with the fork. There'd be a picture or a drawing under the glass which he'd "trace" onto the glass with acrylic paint. He'd then adhere the canvas to the painted surface, let dry, then peal the whole thing off the glass in one shot. At its most successful, the surfaces looked poured out in one gesture of gestures. Instamatic. He loved doing that.
SRS: Then there are the stencils and spray paintings. In this regard, they also refer to photo-process.
RS: Mark used to say that photography, in application, is like tracing. In this sense, if we pull photography apart, technically, there is no mystery to that. What is interesting is the matter-of-factness about it that was present in his awareness of this mechanically. This is interesting too in that he was a huge advocate of tracing. It was more parody on his part ... to dispel the myth of "true art." The first thing you are told in art class is that tracing is cheating. Artists are hammered with learning to draw from nature and so on. We had ongoing talks about this. I had this ability to draw; he admired it. But he connected that ability to a kind of tracing too, that if you could draw from "life" you had developed this retina-to-hand-mechanism, in a very clear sense, much like a human camera. Warhol's machine. So tracing was much more to the point and thus freed photography, in this light. The ambition of the work, however, was in how this technical logic might transcend its limits and become a psychic mechanism. So he kept at drawing and painting, in his own stubborn way, at very least to keep himself personally involved with that relationship. With this in mind, and to be more specific about your question, there is also a correlation between the stenciling, spray painting and photos. Atomized particles in the air coalescing into an image. I don't think Mark was able to completely articulate that, or Pat might have encouraged these endeavors if he had done so. But it was there in what he was working on. He had a poet's sense for these mechanics. It frustrated him that it became an issue with the gallery. He wanted to play at these things. Because he was not very adept as a draftsman, he made these explorations into blatant jokes. Sometimes it's hard to tell who the joke is on. Like in the piece here with the two skulls. On the bottom of the piece he writes in pencil along with his signature, "So Cut Another Stencil, Mary! (So that we can both have a laugh!)". Who's he talking to? Someone specific ... ? The phrasing sounds so. Or ... you? me? ... Everybody? And the working page of the thing is set up like a photo page slapped onto an enlarger receiving light! And the skulls are sitting there together just mocking everything. Fuck me if this is not a terribly poignant work despite photography and in light of it.
SRS: I am reminded of the Peter Galassi book that was around in the '80s Before Photography, from his exhibition at MoMA (1981) of the same name. It proposed that photography grew out of an applied, if often frustrated, human need to record nature and that in essence photography came out of what European painting was doing particularly since the Renaissance. With the applied formalism of perspective pushing forward, over centuries, a romantic desire for realism evolved. If I remember correctly, what Galassi was proposing is almost Borgessian in scope.
RS: Yes, I had a copy of that. Mark borrowed it for a little while too. I don't think he actually read the essay but he found it interesting in his resolve that painting and photography are essentially connected. Especially if either was going to survive as art. A ticking time bomb of a paradox. And he kept at it ... this kind of back and forth. If I remember correctly Galassi referred to the romantic painters as well, like Constable, who would examine nature very closely. Recently I've come across this other book on the English Romantics, William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism (Rutgers University Press, 1987). This is very interesting in relation to Mark. The painter / poets ... Blake, Shelley et. all ... during "the age of enlightenment." Newton's theories on physics and optics were finally then being embraced. There are all these studies in evidence of the sky by Constable and Turner. And Constable kept trying to paint rainbows over and over. But ultimately, in paint, the rainbow remains frustrated. What is interesting and remains romantic is this need to touch something so beautiful yet as evasive as a rainbow. Perhaps this remains what is most interesting about Mark's work. In a sense everything he did shines brightest as something that approaches. He accepts this, again the area of the question, and puts it forward.
SRS: It concerns me as I suspect that this can be misinterpreted as "ambiguous" atmosphere and that maybe in his time, when the public was demanding very bold statements from artists, competitively speaking, it could have been easy to overlook. It makes me think that this may have been at least partially behind the effort to tighten-up the work on the gallery's part ... at least to find a way to define it. Particularly if Mark was speaking in playful terms and not in theoretical terms.
RS: Perhaps. Pat loved the work's atmosphere. She'd often refer to it as Pre-Raphaelite in spirit. So maybe, but not quite. And she appreciated Mark's humor. But it's the brazen, off-kilter works like the painting experiments that she discouraged. I think that as much as Pat loved Mark and loved the work, the gallery situation could not fully absorb the scope of his ambition and that for Mark it went much farther than fame and into the realm of immortality. So the experimental work needed to happen. It's as simple as that. There is very significant information in these playful "experiments" ... especially since his life was cut so short.
SRS: Important work is often overlooked and inadvertently culturally misplaced.
RS: A few weeks ago I was at an event where one of the speakers mentioned having attended Jill Johnston's recent memorial. I believe you helped to organize that at Judson Church. In any case, the speaker asked why we so often fail to appreciate certain accomplishments and the people who author them while they are alive? Well, my thoughts went straight away to Mark then back to Jill. As you know, Jill Johnston was in effect ostracized from the art world after she published Jasper Johns / Privileged Information (Thames and Hudson, 1996). Ostracized, at least, from the level at which she had been used to operating previously.
SRS: That had a huge impact on her. One of the great points of that book was what Jill described as the architecture of the closet. How a tight circle of romantically involved artist friends in the 1950s, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauscheberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage ... while producing revolutionary works, were in effect secretly referring to their situation as closeted gay men. She really went out on a limb by taking such an "out" approach that was almost psycho-socio-analytic. Like the implications, for example, of the title of Cage's then iconoclastic, now iconic work "Silence."
RS: Warhol's work and demeanor in the 1950s was specifically gay and was not embraced by their circle on this point. Or at very least could not be embraced by certain influential circles within the business of art. That for the "Consummation Ritual" Warhol was too gay. As Jill implies, Warhol had to first figure out how to veil his sexuality through his work in order to be let "in." In effect he had to understand the architecture of the closet too.
SRS: We should mention that she approaches her subjects with complete admiration and that these artists are, in fact, worthy of such scrutiny because of, and in regard to, their huge accomplishments.
RS: Right, and here is how it comes back to Mark. Years back when I was reading Jill's book, I told her that for the generation of artists that grew up on punk and the reality of AIDS, Jasper Johns had long ago lost any relevance. The position she took in articulating "the architecture of the closet" and specifically referring to what she saw as John's obsession with the grotesque details of Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, made Johns more than compelling and newly relevant from where I was standing. I remember her eyes welled up. I was very moved by all of this too. At the time, while in conversation with Jill in 2002-3, I was recently diagnosed HIV+ and I was sick for some time and struggling with the stigma of it all. I think that there are always these things, deeply personal things, to navigate when we embark as artists with an ambition towards truth. You struggle with it on some level because your personal life is investigated as you go public with your work. Your truths are reflected back at you. Part of you, personally, becomes public. In Mark's time an artist could be openly queer while maintaining their dignity as a matter of profession but the particulars were still being hammered out and they are still being hammered out today.
SRS: It is a historical fact that Ronald Reagan did not even dare to mention AIDS publicly until 1987. As we mentioned earlier, for all the interesting work that was being done by artists in the 1980s, there was a very thick atmosphere of old Cold War politics going on and Wall Street was very much the beacon on the hill. It is interesting that the most iconically "out" work that managed to surface then, and I mean truly surface, was Robert Mapplethorpe's. It's interesting, in thinking about what Jill's argument proposes, how Mapplethorpe's work set up a queer outlook through an intensely classical structure. Almost as if, in retrospect, the nature of the eroticism that he was bringing forward might not have had a chance without such a strong classical framework.
RS: Appropriation was really huge in the '80s art. Do you think that in this context appropriation was successful as a technique of denial? Or is that going too far?
SRS: What do you mean?
RS: Well, if you are going to get at truth, and the truth is that your own sexuality is probably going to kill you ... and there it is happening all around you to your friends and lovers ... it seems convenient to just keep referring to the past by recycling it over and over, like maybe the present isn't really happening, it's too painful. Like John's hidden references to Grünewald. And how are you going to really say anything worthwhile? Like Taaffe's dizzying reconstructions of Bridgette Riley's hypnotic waves that drift into "the void" as subject matter. I remember that it often came up in the critical writing; that there was a sense that nothing new could really occur in art, so that the "honest" thing to do was to refer to the past. And artists went around and became very particular about what art they would refer to and make huge investments into those claims. I mean, we were in our 20s and AIDS really put us all in a position where we were forced to think of death as something very immediate, in a very disturbing way, and there was this "high art" game going on along side of it. It was a very intense, paradoxical situation.
SRS: Hyperbole was a big '80s touch point, philosophically. Maybe what you are saying has something to do with a counterpoint intensity that art might offer when the culture at large is in the throws of genuine horror.
RS: Well, there was something very interesting in Mark's work that I still find extremely rare. I can't think of any visual artist, aside from Vincent van Gogh, that accomplished anything close to this. And that is this point of fusing personal biography so poignantly with the actual work. It is particularly interesting considering Jill Johnston, who's writing is ultimately autobiographical at its core, that she searches out how Jasper Johns, the great iconographer, made such a successful game out of hiding his own biography.
SRS: Rene Ricard brought Jean-Michel Basquiat forward in his essay The Radiant Child (Artforum, December, 1981), probably one of the most brilliant pieces of art writing of that decade. Ricard challenged the culture at large that they could not afford to overlook the next van Gogh.
RS: And I believe that this was something that they, Mark Morrisroe or Basquiat, would not have necessarily chosen for themselves. Ultimately, because who's really interested in being a martyr, anyway? But in terms of what it means to the person, Basquiat had to deal with being a "nigger" once he arrived to the moment of "Consummation." He had proven himself but was constantly reminded, critically and in effect, of his "place." In part, his genius was that he allowed all of that back into the work so brilliantly and with such power. Lucky for us.
SRS: It seems like the "van Gogh boat" was missed, however, in Mark's case.
RS: Well, do we really want to go there? Potato Eaters? Mark didn't want to be a child prostitute or poor or hooked on drugs or to have AIDS. But he delivered it with reverie as it has to do with the issue of truth and its performance. He could not get away from it and would not have been allowed to either. Whether you want to believe any given story he could come up with or not was beside the point. What mattered was that truth was expressed or, if not at very least, created through art. His life gave him more than sufficient material to have something to say. And he looked to art as his way of saying it. So in light of the very real biography that was going on, there was a profound attraction to narrative and story telling as well. I mentioned Shakespeare before. There was also horror. He read everything Stephen King wrote as it came out. King was New England's current horror writer to Mark and quite good at it. And Tennessee Williams was confidently speaking, probably the most important influence to Mark's ideology. Mark turned William's play Hello from Bertha into a film where he plays the main character, Bertha, obviously aligning himself with Williams' character and with Williams the artist by virtue of creating the film and performing the obscure play line for line.
SRS: I have yet to see Mark's films, though I hear that they are very funny.
RS: The films are very funny. You can see him in the films and that he, himself was very funny and that there was a lot of clowning around. Camaraderie was important. He was always finding cohorts to execute these "schemes." Lynelle, Tabboo!, Gail Thacker. I remember he'd call up and go off on these tangents trying to get me to help him rob a grave ... so that he could get a cadaver to make a sculpture with. He wasn't completely serious but he would come off that way in an effort to stir things up. In great part this has to do as well with how the portraiture worked for him. There was always this aspect of chortling and making mischief. The silkscreen print of Lucy and Ethel is presented here for the first time from the estate's achives. He made this very early on in art school. So there was always this kind of clowning around going on in his sensibility. And it revolved around art. That art could be fun in a conspiring way.
SRS: Much of the work rides the fine line between laughter and tears. Like the ubiquitous tragedy and comedy masks of theater ... or how Lucille Ball could cry and laugh at the same time, you can't not be gripped by that.
RS: It was very theatrical. I should add that Mark continued through the rest of his life with other film ideas and made many notes and partial scripts. When he was very sick, towards the very end, he wanted to perform Cocteau's The Human Voice for a last film. It's too bad that it couldn't be managed. The situation of his rapid deterioration was so intense and required so much from everyone involved that it made that project impossible. It is a huge regret. Especially in that what he was experiencing and in that what was happening to him was of global import. It would have been a very poignant statement even as an attempt.
SRS: Williams' own projects were often misunderstood and heavily criticized. He was always aiming at some very deep human truth that was difficult to reconcile.
RS: The Wooster Group recently staged Williams' View Carré in New York. It was a wonderful production. As you mention about some of Williams' works, this piece was not appreciated in his own time. For this conversation, it is interesting to consider this statement that The Wooster Group included in their current program notes, a production note from Williams himself for The Glass Menagerie (Random House, New York 1945):
"Being a memory play," The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention. Because of its considerably delicate or tenuous material, atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction play a particularly important part. Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn't be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are. The straight realistic play with its genuine ice-cubes, its characters that speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those that were merely present in appearance.
SRS: Astounding. Do you think that Mark might have actually read that? I mean, not only does it directly address the content of Mark's overall approach, but it also makes an assumption of what photography is or could be in a very heavy way. If he did read it, it must have had a great impact in him.
RS: Not only do I believe he read it, I think he absorbed it completely and it is probably at the very core of everything he did as an artist. Specifically, Mark loved The Glass Menagerie. He related to it and often referred to it in conversation. So I'm sure he must have read this at some point early on. Mark read voraciously and I can say that he probably read just about everything Tennessee Williams wrote. So yes, I'm sure that he read this and I'm sure that it had a great deal to do with how he processed his "photography" too. It must have been even a huge opportunity in his mind to see if he could even bring Williams himself to task by using photography itself, after such a statement, as the vehicle for transformation that Williams calls for as paramount.
SRS: Williams uses the word plastic in its true sense. As I've seen Mark's work presented over time in different contexts and now with yet another curatorial view as it has come back to New York after Switzerland. It is a testament to the work's plasticity that it can survive so much investigation. The Polaroid of Mark (Self Portrait, 1989) towards the end on his bed, shot from above (I think you mentioned that Brent Sikkema took that), my God, to bare yourself so. And all the while thinking of a good pose.
RS: That picture ... knowing that you look like death, and doing a pinup shot, like Marilyn for Playboy, is probably one of the most complicated gestures by any artist. He really faced it. It also makes me think of what Francis Bacon talked about in the David Sylvester interviews (The Brutality of Truth, Thames and Hudson, London 1980) in referencing Cimabue's crucifix. How the suspended Christ figure seems to sliver down the cross ... and to Bacon's overall obsession with flesh. Bacon was also very interested in photography, psychically.
SRS: Ultimately it is very sad when seeing the work as one imagines where Mark could have taken things if he would have survived even a few more years.
RS: This area of reality, plasticity and transformation is so vital. It is still not easily appreciated. There's been much importance placed on "the lie" and "the bad boy" as central themes regarding Mark and his work. These notions are mere attempts to posture and protect sacred cows. Mark was in trouble because he knew that where he came from, what his life had been, was going to keep him outside of the "elite" that decides who really gets "in." Privileged Information ... he had access to that. His wound ... the fact that he was a hustler, which his crippled gait from that trick's gun shot was a constant reminder, was never going to let him in, really. People romanticize that, but in reality he wasn't going to make it into the fancy dinners. He wasn't going to be let into "The Consummation Ritual." Not alive, anyway. It made people whisper. He was a very bad boy and he wasn't going clean up very well. Like van Goghs' temper and dirty fingernails. Or Basquiat's blackness. That would happen only after death and at some point he realized that. Somewhere I think that this all pushed Mark even further to notice his life, to be intimately critical, and through the joy of the work, find transformation: the thing he probably cared about more than fame ... the thing that fame could ultimately only lend itself to: poetry.
... the way to get at the merits of a case is not to listen to the fool who imagines himself impartial, but to get it argued with reckless bias for and against. To understand a saint, you must hear the devil's advocate; and the same is true of the artist.
More on Morrisroe:
Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On -- Artists Space, 38 Greene Street, NYC, March 9 - May 1, 2011Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989) -- ClampArt, 521-531 West 25th Street, NYC, March 24 - April 30, 2011
What Comes Next? Mark Morrisroe, David Wojnarowicz, Marc Lida, Andreas Senser, Bern Boyle, and contemporaries. A Visual AIDS symposium with Rafael Sanchez, Amy Scholder, Sur Rodney (Sur), Jonathan Weinberg and moderated by Dean Daderko. Hosted by The Fales Library at New York University on Wednesday April 20 from 6:30 – 8:30 PM