Morrisroe’s adolescence is memorialized in Polaroids taken at that time and then resurrected by the still-young photo-alchemist in his sandwich prints. There’s a definite time lag, not visible at first, in these works. Sweet 16: Little Me as a Child Prostitute, June 6 1984 uses an early Polaroid self-portrait from ca. 1975 of Morrisroe sprawled nude on a bed. The title’s words are scrawled as marginalia on the Polaroid, which is in turn framed by numerous graffitied lines and shadows in the sandwich print. Blow Both of Us, Gail Thacker and Me, Summer 1978 (1986) is a later enlargement of an early, double head shot of Morrisroe, with his sardonic grimace, and Thacker, with her asymmetrical wedge hairdo. In the distance looms what he called in another context the “dismal Boston skyline.”
It’s all in the marginalia, I came to think, when looking at the startling silver prints, cyanotypes and sandwich prints that constitute Morrisroe’s best work. The combinations of hand additions—dots, dashes, stars and written titles—give the prints a notational aspect that is fully in keeping with the contemporaneous use of words and dates as imagery by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tashjian and others. Occasionally, the texts are epistolary: the best-known example is in Self Portrait (to Brent), 1982, a steamy frontal nude with the tag, “Taken to answer sex add [sic], a little something for all those words of wisdom that youve been offering me all these years.” Morrisroe’s inscriptions establish a poetics of time and place: “Paul Ardmore, Nosferatu, Summer ’84, The Unspoken” reads the title accompanying a portrait of a literary-looking fellow.
These inscriptions adumbrate a cult of feeling in Morrisroe’s milieu, even suggesting sincerity (some might say sentimentality). It is an intimist sensibility that would have considerable repercussions in the later assemblage reliefs and drawings of Morrisroe’s youthful lover Jonathan Pierson, who would change his name to Jack. Among the many images of Pierson in the show, none is more beautiful than Fascination (Jonathan), ca. 1983, which depicts him in bed, with a parakeet perched on an upstretched hand. Obscured in what looks to be a gown on the bed are two cats, who watch the dumb show from either side.
WORDS AND LINE READINGS drive Morrisroe’s experiments in filmmaking. “Again!” the director’s taped voice shouts repeatedly in The Laziest Girl in Town (1981), in which Pierson plays a hayseed (“Are you one of them transsexuals?” he asks) to Morrisroe’s glamorous Pucci-and-chinos-clad gal at the sink. In Hello from Bertha (1983), the rantings and ravings of Morrisroe as a Joan Crawford type confined to a bedsit, and visited by the hilarious Tashjian and Pierson (themselves both in drag), turn out to be entirely scripted: the text is a little-known playlet by Tennessee Williams.
The films are one of the real discoveries of the show (I wish, at Winterthur, they hadn’t been screened in the noisy museum entrance) and help explain the iconography of the photos. For instance, the artist’s drag alter ego in The Laziest Girl, “Sweet Raspberry,” becomes a tragic older actress looking over her shoulder wistfully in the famous sandwich print Sweet Raspberry, Spanish Madonna (Self-Portrait) of 1986. The films are given their due in the show’s catalogue, in a probing essay by Stuart Comer, film curator at Tate Modern. Comer describes a lost, and fearsome-sounding, snuff movie from the mid-’70s involving a cat, a collaboration between Morrisroe and Steve Stain, a Boston punk performance artist. Hearn showed the unsigned video on a cable TV program she ran at the time in Boston. Its airing prompted a huge outcry, a court case and the cancellation of Hearn’s show. Morrisroe wasn’t directly implicated, and Stain chose to leave town fast.
Much of Morrisroe’s best work was accomplished in Boston. He moved to the New York area only in 1985, to Jersey City, N.J., in fact, where he occupied a cheap apartment passed on to him by Philip Taaffe. In her excellent catalogue essay about the East Village in the ’80s, Linda Yablonsky reminisces, “When Morrisroe hit town, it was the beginning of the end. As a latecomer to the party, he melted into a scene that hardly noticed him.” By ’86, the year of that first one-man show with Hearn, he tested positive for the AIDS virus.
The works from the last three years are different in character. For the most part, they are collage-based photograms of found materials. They include fringed cutups of pages from porn magazines printed as overlapping negatives in hot colors on black paper. One untitled C-print and rayogram (ca. 1987) is a lyrical still life of what look to be floating perfume bottles, but are more probably AIDS medications. (What a send-up of the cosmetics industry!) Other works appropriate the artist’s own medical charts. The image of Morrisroe’s formerly ephebic chest is presented in diminished profile in a 1988 series of three gelatin silver prints, photograms of X-rays, in three different color combinations, which look at first like biomorphic abstractions.
The artist’s big, beautiful smile is revisited in another untitled gelatin silver print from 1988 that shows an oversize image of Morrisroe’s own dental X-ray (with one front tooth missing); the artist’s hand is visible only in the hints of marker line around the negative.
What’s most amazing about this work is that much of it was executed in impromptu darkrooms the artist rigged
up in his hospital bathrooms. Morrisroe’s courageous, unrelenting drive to keep making art is inspiring. The catalogue essayists clarify a body of work done in considerable isolation; there were no longer cute friends around to get naked with (except, perhaps, the artist’s last partner, Ramsey McPhillips). Very often Morrisroe was by himself. The black-and-white Polaroids of the artist nude, lying in the sunlight, his body wasted to a bony apparition of his former saturnine self, are among the most moving in the show.
Morrisroe died, but his spirit lives on—not only in the additional prints that will no doubt now come on the market in increasing numbers, but as the avatar of young video and performance artists, like Kalup Linzy and Ryan Trecartin, who wreak havoc with gender and identity. There’s also a renewed fervor over ’80s homoerotic work and its role in the American culture wars. The recent censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly (1986), removed from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (then screened at a dozen museums and acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art), provoked memories of the first fracas over Wojnarowicz’s work and NEA funding [see A.i.A., Feb. ’11]. Back then, in 1989, the controversial show was “Against Our Vanishing,” curated by Nan Goldin for Artists Space, and it included, posthumously, photographs by Morrisroe. There’s a certain poetic justice, therefore, in the fact that Morrisroe’s work will now be seen at Artists Space.
The artist’s late photograms, as I discovered in Switzerland, feature a couple of gay-inflected images of stars and stripes. These are the two variants (1986 and ’87) of an untitled C-print (a photogram of printed material) reproducing a star pattern over a hard-to-read magazine cover with the headline “The ABC’s of S&M.” These jazzy graphics, at once hermetic and in your face, struck a weirdly patriotic chord in a winter that saw the abolition of the U.S. military’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell."
“Mark Morrisroe” opened at the Fotomuseum Winterthur [Nov. 27, 2010-Feb. 13, 2011]. The catalogue features essays by Beatrix Ruf, Thomas Seelig, Fionn Meade, Elizabeth Lebovici, Linda Yablonsky and Teresa Gruber, and a conversation between Ruf, Seelig, Lia Gangitano and Frank Wagner. The version of the exhibition appearing at Artists Space [Mar. 9-May 1], “Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On,” is curated by Richard Birkett and Stefan Kalmár.
BROOKS ADAMS is an art critic based in Paris.