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Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Mark Morrisroe was born with a few strikes against him. But that didn't stop him from creating art out of his troubled life.

June 01, 1997|Kristine McKenna | 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."

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