Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Artist Jack Pierson once described the work of his colleague, the late Mark Morrisroe, as “Caspar David Friedrich in a donut shop.” What one assumes Pierson meant by the comparison to the 19th century German Romantic painter is that Morrisroe also aspired to the sublime, but from an almost insurmountably disadvantaged position.

That the deck was stacked against this artist from the start becomes apparent in “My Life. Mark Morrisroe: Polaroids 1977-1989,” an exhibition opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Born to an unmarried, drug-addicted Boston prostitute in 1959, Morrisroe claimed throughout his life that his father was Albert DeSalvo, a.k.a. the Boston Strangler. At 13 the future artist ran away from home and was taken in by street hustlers who taught him the trade, and he subsequently starred in a gay snuff film whose director left him for dead at the conclusion of the shoot. When he was 16, Morrisroe was shot in the back by a trick and spent the rest of his life with a severe limp and a bullet lodged near his heart.

That a young man with this history died of AIDS at the age of 30 isn’t surprising; that he enrolled in art school and spent the last 12 years of his life completing a substantial body of work that includes photographs, paintings and films is nothing short of miraculous. Part of a creative community that coalesced in Boston in the late 1970s and included Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the Starn Twins (who paid homage to Morrisroe in several portraits made of him in the mid-'80s), Morrisroe is acknowledged by those artists as a seminal influence, and he is considered a key figure in what has come to be known as the Boston School.

The MOCA show, organized in 1995 by curator Klaus Ottmann for exhibition at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where it opened in 1996, comprises 185 Morrisroe Polaroids.


“Morrisroe shot Polaroids constantly but he just tossed them into a box and they were never shown during his lifetime” says Ottmann, who is working on a book on the artist slated to be published later this year with essays by MOCA assistant curator Connie Butler, the Starn Twins, Goldin and Pierson, among others.

“It wasn’t until Mark died and his dealer, Pat Hearn, sorted out his estate that she realized it was a body of work of about 800 images,” Ottmann says. “Essentially they’re a diary of his life and a third are portraits of his friends, while another third are still lifes. The remainder are self-portraits, and these are the images that pull you into Mark’s world--I can’t think of another artist who explored self-portraiture with the intensity he brought to it.”

Morrisroe’s obsession with his own identity makes sense, given his background, and he continually shielded himself behind fictional personas. There was Mark Dirt, editor of the punk fanzine Dirt; Raspberry, the wounded, melancholy drag queen; Morrisroe the brazen hustler, the loving friend, the motherless child.

“People who knew Mark took everything he said with a grain of salt because one of the ways he coped with the chaos of his life was by lying extravagantly,” says Butler, who has overseen the installation of the show at MOCA. “His way of being in the world was to create fictions, and his companion at the time of his death, Ramsey McPhillips, [who is writing a fictionalized biography of Morrisroe titled ‘Am I Dead Yet?’] says lying became a language Mark believed himself.


“His mother had a drinking problem and at one point was involved with someone who may have been Albert DeSalvo, so that story could be true,” Butler says. “Ultimately it’s irrelevant, though, because the power of Morrisroe’s work is rooted in his desperate compulsion to turn the camera on himself--you get the sense he was frantically trying to get at something.”

Of his criteria in selecting from Morrisroe’s vast body of Polaroids, Ottmann says: “I made a chronological selection that I hope gives an overview of his output and evolution. The earliest pictures are very innocent, then they move into a period where there was a lot of dressing up and a lot of nudity--the work became more self-conscious when he began adopting personas and manipulating the Polaroids.

“Some of the work from the middle period has a Pictorialist quality, and he occasionally cut up the images and used them in collages. When his illness began to really progress, the work became simple again and became inflected with melancholy and nostalgia. He started to shoot more landscapes, and there are Polaroids of him on his hospital bed that are quite touching. The final image is a Polaroid Ramsey McPhillips shot immediately after he died. Contrary to what one might assume, the work isn’t depressing. Yes, some of it is troubling and sad, but much of it is very joyful and funny.”

Joyful, funny--and raw, Butler points out: “Morrisroe gave himself complete freedom to experiment, and he worked with the Polaroids with the looseness of an artist drawing in a sketchbook. You get the sense of a kid experimenting in art school, and this is particularly true of his films, three of which are included in the show.”

(Morrisroe’s colleague the drag artist known as Tabboo! described their low-budget style as “availableism.”)

“Because of the nature of the process, the Polaroids are rawer than his larger color work, which I considered also showing but finally decided against,” Butler says. “The Polaroids are quite intimate and require a highly focused attention, and the presence of larger work would be distracting. Morrisroe also completed a body of approximately 40 figurative paintings, [currently in the possession of New York artist Raphael Sanchez], and I decided against including those for the same reason.”

Those familiar with the underground culture of the East Coast will recognize Morrisroe’s debt to Andy Warhol’s Factory-era work of the ‘60s and to Manhattan’s first punk generation, which surfaced in 1975.

“Morrisroe’s sensibility was urban in a way that’s peculiar to the Northeast,” Butler says, “and it was largely shaped by the punk community--he had a punk ‘zine, so he really had a foot in that community. I wouldn’t call him a punk artist, though, because he’s essentially working in the tradition of documentary photography, and I hope the show will help place him in that tradition.


“No artist chronicled their own death through self-portraiture to the degree Morrisroe did--and obviously, the fact that he died affects how we experience his work. AIDS has so devastated the creative community that it’s generated an entire school of art making, and Morrisroe’s work has ties to it, but his work is not overtly about AIDS.”

‘While Butler takes pains to point out what distinguishes Morrisroe’s work from that of other artists who have dealt with AIDS--Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar and Nicholas Nixon, to name a few--Ottmann hopes to free Morrisroe from the confines of the Boston School.

“There’s really no such thing,” Ottmann says, “and in my opinion, Morrisroe’s strongest ties are to Walker Evans, who also did lots of self-portraiture early in his career.”

The dust has yet to settle around Morrisroe’s place in art history, but it seems that he will have one, if current interest in his work is any indication.

“Friends of mine who teach tell me Morrisroe’s work is greatly admired by students presently in art school,” Butler says, “and since we announced this show there’s been a tremendous amount of interest expressed by young artists. That could have to do with the fact that in the last few years there’s been a dramatic shift towards art of a subjective and personal nature--and art doesn’t get more personal than Morrisroe’s.”


“MY LIFE. MARK MORRISROE: POLAROIDS 1977-1989,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. Dates: Opens today. Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 14. Prices: Adults, $6; senior citizens and students with ID, $4. Phone: (213) 626-6222.