“Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On” runs for three more weeks at Artists Space in SoHo, and it is well worth visiting before the show closes. With his short life -- Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989) died of AIDS at age 30 -- the photographer has come to embody both the inventiveness and poignancy of art in the AIDS era.
Born in decidedly un-glamorous Malden, Mass., Morrisroe hustled as a teenager and spent the rest of his life with a bullet imbedded in his back, apparently the result of a transaction gone awry. He was part of the Boston underground scene until 1985, when he moved to New York. He performed at the Pyramid Club, made super-8 movies starring his friends, and was pals with Nan Goldin, Pat Hearn and Jack Pierson.
He showed twice in the 1980s with Pat Hearn Gallery, and was also in a 1989 show at Artists Space, "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," organized by Goldin. His estate ended up in the hands of the Ringier Collection at the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, which compiled a catalogue raisonné and organized an exhibition of the material in 2010, from which the Artists Space exhibition is derived.
It’s hard to avoid viewing Morrisroe’s entire body of work through the lens of his illness and early death, so that even the earlier photographs -- filled with naked young people posing jauntily for the camera -- seem to take on an aura of loss and inevitable decay. We like to think that their spirit of giddy freedom, so admirable in the avant-garde, derives only from youth and high spirits, and maybe a few assorted intoxicants.
The issue is made explicit in a group of Polaroid self-portraits taken in 1989, in which Morrisroe is so emaciated that he is unrecognizable -- yet, the horror is tempered by esthetics, notably the beauty of the sun shining on his flowered bedding. Nearby is a group of self-portraits from only a few years earlier, in which a grinning Morrisroe shows off his muscular, still-vital physique.
Morrisroe mostly photographed his friends and lovers. The people in his images are often sans clothing but not stripped bare: his work seems to be about not what people were but rather how they wanted to be seen. Like many a diva and drag queen, he was all about performance (as many critics have already pointed out).
Morrisroe took plenty of Polaroids, but much of his best work involved experimentation with a variety of photographic techniques, many of them -- gum prints, cyanotypes, photograms -- more redolent of the 1890s than the 1980s. He gets some credit for devising "sandwich prints," which combine two negatives. He even saw possibilities in medical x-rays of his chest and teeth, turning these items into a series of colorful and abstracted prints (he also turned his hospital bathroom into a makeshift darkroom).
A young master of the abject esthetic, Morrisroe was interested in manipulation but not perfection. Many of his photographs are marred (or enhanced, really) by scratches, fingerprints and awkwardly scribbled annotations. The world depicted in Morrisroe’s work is gritty, its interiors cramped and seedy, or occasionally perverse -- in one large print (Untitled, ca. 1981), a man is in such extreme bondage that he looks like a plastic-wrapped corpse.
But it’s a world that’s also playful and sometimes singularly lovely. In Fascination [Jonathan], a man (Jack Pierson) lies on a mattress on the floor and raises one arm distractedly into the air. A parakeet perches on his fingers, while three cats crouch below, alert. A pink skirt, the color of cotton candy, is spread out on the bed.
“Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On,” March 9-May 1, 2011, at Artists Space, 38 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
OLIVIA GOOD is a New York writer.