“Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry and Light,” is the latest exhibition at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Curated by Dr. Carol Ockman, Selby’s curator-at-large, this show explores the importance of nature in Mapplethorpe and Smith’s art. While making that connection, this show also recreates Mapplethorpe’s photography with living art vignettes.
The result is a savvy investigation of their artistic processes that doesn’t ignore the artists themselves. Smith and Mapplethorpe’s work was highly personal. To understand it, you need to know who they were (and are).
The late Mapplethorpe made a name for himself with his often transgressive, black-and-white nude photographs. Smith was the ecstatic poet laureate of the 1970s punk music scene. Both became big names, but they knew each other when they were unknowns.
They helped each other start their artistic journeys. Nature was a common obsession, but their paths diverged in medium and message.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s divide between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” says it best. The god of light, reason, harmony, balance and prophesy on the right hand. The god of wine, revelry, ecstatic emotion and tragedy on the left.
Smith’s path was clearly Dionysian. She went the way of the Sibyl, the oracle, and the entranced bard speaking words from beyond her self. Nature flows through her work, but Smith doesn’t simply write and sing about nature. She is a force of nature.
The exhibit opens in the Tropical Conservatory with a massive blow-up of the photograph from her “Horses” (1975) album cover. Smith’s look is androgynous and ambiguous. Part waif, part warrior. She stands, shaggy-haired, hands clutched at her chest, holding a coat draped over one shoulder. Mapplethorpe shot the photo, of course. Songs from Smith’s untamed album play continuously throughout this hothouse space.
Quotations from Smith’s prose and poetry punctuate the winding garden paths outside. A vinyl LP of Smith’s “Wave” (1979) plays on a spinning turntable. A recreation of the Chelsea Hotel’s neon sign flickers – Smith and Mapplethorpe both lived at the Chelsea. It’s where their journey started.
The Museum of Botany and the Arts marks the end of your journey. Inside, you’ll see (and hear) more celebrations of Smith’s art. But Mapplethorpe’s photos are the stars of this show. Nature was always his focus.
But where Smith burns white-hot, Mapplethorpe’s gaze was cool.
Mapplethorpe’s monochromatic photographs rattled the art world’s cage in the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and ’90s. That earned him a bad-boy reputation, but his work was analytical, classical and controlled. The art of the mind, not white-hot emotion.
Mapplethorpe’s floral photographs exemplify his cool intellect. Nothing is ever left to chance.
Some photographers spray-and-pray. Not Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe’s analysis determined his focus. Photography is all about framing – what you don’t photograph is just as important as what you do. And Mapplethorpe’s frame was never an accident.
Selby Gardens’ horticultural team understands that. Mike McLaughlin, Angel Lara, Christopher Elenstar, and Nathan Burnaman brilliantly illustrate Mapplethorpe’s artistic process with their living vignettes.
You see the importance of framing before you enter the Tropical Conservatory. Beside the entrance, a black cube with a white interior surrounds a golden trumpet tree like a giant diorama. The box frames the tree and severs it from context. It’s the living, 3-D equivalent of a photographic print.
Inside the conservatory, there’s a long wall with more floral vignettes in window-like openings, a series of square apertures with epiphytes and other tropical plants inside. Each opening has a black frame with a white matte. These resemble a series of photographic prints in Mapplethorpe’s idiom, but this art is very much alive.
The living wall at the end of the interior is a huge recreation of Mapplethorpe’s “Orchid” (1987). This piece uses an effect like a printer’s screen. Up close, you see it’s a white wall cut with horizontal openings, with dark, green ferns behind it. From a distance, the strips of light and dark resolve into the image of an orchid.
More dioramas appear on the walkway outside – including an open frame where you can put yourself in the picture.
The Museum of Botany and the Arts reveals the art that inspired Selby Gardens’ botanical creators. You’ll see four massive prints of some of Mapplethorpe’s most iconic floral and natural photography, thanks to USF’s Graphic Studio and the Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Mapplethorpe’s monochromatic floral images have a film noir punch. The artist’s “Hyacinth” (1987) could easily be a still frame from a gritty 1940s detective movie. The flower’s central stalk rises up like a tower from a conical vase; more stalks and a flower lean to the viewer’s left against slanting shadows cast by Venetian blinds. Mapplethorpe repeats the noirish backdrop with “Irises” (1987) – a perfectly symmetrical composition, except for the background shadow-play. It’s a celebration of life, but it counts the cost of Apollonian analysis. Look closely and you’ll notice that these are cut flowers, either dead or dying. Because life is never that perfect.
You’ll also experience two large-scale photographic prints of Ken Moody, one of Mapplethorpe’s go-to models. In one, he holds an apple; in the other, a palm frond. Each image has an uncharacteristic splash of color. These Moody prints are slightly less static and controlled. The real subject is very much alive.
Along with Mapplethorpe’s photographic art, this portion of the exhibit bursts with ephemera and memorabilia from these two rebellious artists’ early years. Lovers, pals, artistic co-conspirators and very, very young. “Just Kids” – as Smith put it in her autobiographical remembrance of her lost friend. But childhood always ends.
Mapplethorpe died in 1989, a victim of AIDS at the age of 42. Smith vowed to tell his story, and did when she wrote her memoir in 2010.
This exhibit tells the story of both of these creators. It’s a powerful example of artistic cross-fertilization. You see the feedback loop of art and nature. Art imitates life. Artists also imitate other artists. Selby Garden’s artists do both.
The result puts a frame around the artistic process – and the act of seeing itself. Once you’re aware of that dividing line, you’ll see both art and the world differently. You can think about it or feel it, but you can’t ignore it.
Whether you’re holding a camera or not, the frame is always there.
That applies to both Apollonians and Dionysians alike.
‘Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry and Light’
Runs through June 26 at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. 941-366-5731; selby.org.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Selby Gardens exhibit art and nature in the work of Mapplethorpe and Smith