I NEVER MET THE NOTORIOUS Mark Morrisroe (1959–989), but I must have seen every one of his shows, beginning in the mid-’80s, at Pat Hearn’s now mythic galleries in New York’s East Village. In ’85, it was a works-on-paper group show at her slick Avenue B storefront, featuring Morrisroe, Donald Baechler, George Condo, Philip Taaffe and others. In ’86, it was a solo at her imposing 9th Street space (between avenues C and D), where she presented a full range of Morrisroe’s photography: "sandwich" prints (as he called them) in big dark frames, small prints from Polaroid negatives, and “early darkroom experiments” using found materials—from gay porn magazines and such—printed in negative.
In all its incarnations, Pat Hearn Gallery was the epicenter of cool, but in 1985-86 it was at its most cutting-edge. There’s a surprisingly conservative snapshot of Morrisroe and Hearn from this period, probably from one of his openings, which is heartbreaking in its propriety. The artist—so much more often shot in the buff—is wearing a coat and tie, while Hearn, of late a punk princess (and, in Paris in ’81, photographed in the nude byMorrisroe as Kiki de Montparnasse and La Mome Piaf), has morphed into a grande dame in a fur-collared coat.
Morrisroe’s work became better known after his death, as Hearn, his devoted old friend from Boston, staged a series of memorial shows, in 1994, ’96 and ’99. Hearn, who inherited his estate and more than anyone else shaped, curated and pushed his work, also died young, at 45, in 2000; and, like that of so many artists whose lives and careers were cut tragically short by AIDS, Morrisroe’s work was put in considerable risk. When Pat’s husband, the maverick dealer Colin de Land—who had been trying to place the estate—died at 47 in 2003, it seemed like the two dealers’ engaged and unorthodox way of working was going to disappear.
The sale of the estate in 2004 to the Ringier collection of contemporary art, belonging to the Swiss newspaper magnate and art book publisher Michael Ringier, could not have been more fortunate. Ringier’s curator, Beatrix Ruf, had originally proposed to de Land that the estate, once it was owned by Ringier, would be housed at Fotomuseum Winterthur. The museum’s curator, Thomas Seelig, put archivists to work—most recently Teresa Gruber—sorting through the chaos, and this thorough inventorying has given Morrisroe a second life. There was a vigorous, Rimbaudian bloom to his work this winter at an exhibition curated by Ruf and Seelig in the serenely neutral spaces of the Swiss museum. [The version opening this month at Artists Space, “Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On,” has a different selection of work.]
Morrisroe died at just 30, but by then he had accomplished a considerable life’s work. According to Gruber’s catalogue essay, his oeuvre comprises about 2,000 photographs, including 800 Polaroids, 600 gelatin silver prints, and 200 C-prints and “sandwich prints” (Morrisroe’s invention, made by reshooting a photograph, producing an intermediate negative, and exposing the photographic paper through the two sandwiched negatives). There are also 60 cyanotypes and gum prints (19th-century techniques), boxes and boxes of fascinating ephemera (a selection of which was presented at Winterthur) and three Super-8 films.
ROLE-PLAYING AND GENDER-BENDING youths—artists and others—populate Morrisroe’s photographs: 20-somethings getting naked, donning high heels and wigs, trying on identities. This is the culturally specific world of Boston in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when high punk ruled and Morrisroe and his friends from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (where he got a scholarship) were cutting up, living on the edge and documenting each other’s every move. Among them were Hearn, Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Doug and Mike Starn, who with Morrisroe and others were dubbed the “Boston School” of photography in a show at the city’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1995.
Morrisroe, by all reports, was the most out-there and diabolically ambitious of them all. “If Mark didn’t have art he would have been a serial killer,” remarked his friend Pia Howard, one of many choice quotes printed large on the wall at the entrance to the Winterthur show. Indeed, as we read in Gruber’s biographical essay, Morrisroe’s mother was a severely depressed alcoholic, and his father was absent. The artist often claimed that his father was Albert De Salvo, the Boston Strangler (who was in fact his mother’s landlord and lived nearby). As a precocious teenager who changed high schools and left home early, Morrisroe styled himself “Mark Dirt” and worked as a hustler in order to raise enough money to get his own apartment; he also found time to graduate from high school. At the age of 17, he was shot in the spine by one of hisclients; after several weeks in the hospital, he willed himself to walk again, though with a noticeable limp.
Morrisroe’s enterprising adolescence comes to life in the typed originals of the fanzine Dirt that he and a friend, Lynelle White, produced in 1975-76. They distributed the ’zine in Xeroxed and hand-colored editions of between 20 and 30 in Boston nightclubs. The hilarious faux-celebrity reports in Dirt show Morrisroe reveling in self-invented stardom, emulating the prevailing American masters of the genre—Andy Warhol, as well as the filmmakers Jack Smith and John Waters—all of whom were heroes for the young artist. Issues of Dirt were exhibited in vitrines at Winterthur, along with ephemera from Morrisroe’s later drag performances with Stephen Tashjian, aka Tabboo!, the most charismatic of Morrisroe’s early cohorts. Together, they appeared as the Clam Twins at clubs like the Pyramid in the East Village.
Remarkably, the Winterthur exhibition re-created Morrisroe’s first solo exhibition in 1981 at the 11th Hour in Boston, a gallery founded by Mike Carroll and Penelope Place. Here he showed relatively straightforward black-and-white prints in which the dominant influences seem to be Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. The most shocking of them is a shot of someone in bondage, his head and body tightly wrapped in plastic and packing tape, and a single breathing tube allowed. Next to this hung a portrait of a wholesome blond boy and cute dog, like something out of “Lassie.” Notable, too, are a shot-from-below portrait of the young Nan Goldin wearing a black bra and a string of pearls, and a close-up of a dead rat, feet in the air.