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Mark Morrisroe
"Untitled (Self Portrait)", (1986)Image: © Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection) at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Untitled (Self Portrait), c. 1976, Vintage Polaroid print (Unique), Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

The artist that Nan Goldin called Boston’s first punk

Mark Morrisroe was the enigmatic, unofficial leader of The Boston School group of artists but his premature death left his work in the shadows

At the tender age of 30, American artist Mark Morrisroe died from complications due to Aids. The year was 1989 and by then the virus had claimed over 27,400 lives in its first decade. The loss was irreplaceable.

Morrisroe was the unofficial leader of The Boston School, a group of artists including Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tabboo!, and Gail Thacker who attended either the School of the Museum of Fine Arts or Massachusetts College of Art between 1971 and 1984. Here, he helped kindle the nascent punk scene while also acting as a catalyst in bringing autobiographical photography to the forefront of the art world.

Morrisroe was an enigmatic figure whose diaristic artwork was fuelled by his notoriously radical persona. A teenage prostitute raised by an alcoholic mother, he walked with a cane and a pronounced limp due to a bullet lodged deep within his chest, a wound inflicted while in high school when he was shot by a john. The artist turned to photography to mediate his experiences of life. Working in Polaroids, he embraced the immediacy of the moment transformed into an object that could be manipulated at will. Morrisroe forsook the sanctity of the print in favour of engaging with a mixed-media approach, presciently prefiguring so much of the digital culture in which we currently live.

Yet his premature death has relegated his work to the shadows, making him one of the least-known figures of his time. For more than a decade, gallerist Brian Clamp has exhibited Morrisroe’s art, working tirelessly to restore his rightful place in the art world. In conjunction with the February 1 opening of Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989): Boy Next Door (Beautiful but Dumb) at ClampArt, New York, Clamp shares the details of Morrisroe’s spectacular life and the ways in which his personal experiences fuelled the creation of his art.

“Morrisroe's habit of self-invention, along with his need to always inhabit a space outside of regular conventions, revealed his identity as an artist” – Brian Clamp

HE WROTE HIS OWN LEGEND

“Mark Morrisroe was born in 1959, the son of Patricia Morrisroe. His father was unknown, although Mark maintained that he was the illegitimate son of Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. Indeed, DeSalvo was the Morrisroe’s landlord, and Mark did bear a seeming physical resemblance. Nonetheless, this story has never been confirmed. However, it is important in that Mark Morrisroe was notorious his whole life as a teller of tall tale. His biography was one in which he definitely was interested in constructing.

For example, Morrisroe always claimed his mother was a drug-addicted prostitute. According to accounts from others, it seems she certainly was a depressive alcoholic, but her emotional problems probably did not start to emerge until the time of her son's adolescence.

Nonetheless, Morrisroe began prostituting himself by the age of 16 to fund his own apartment and get away from his mother (of whom he was deeply ashamed). Soon thereafter, a disgruntled john shot Morrisroe and because the bullet damaged his spinal cord, he spent several weeks in the hospital. While, against all odds, he did recover but the bullet remained lodged in his chest for the rest of his life, causing his signature, exaggerated limp.

Despite such a tumultuous childhood, Morrisroe was artistically quite ambitious, and these challenges seemed only to motivate him even further. Morrisroe switched high schools and left home, and impressively later was able to secure admission to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.”

HE WAS GREAT AT SELF-INVENTION

“Mark Morrisroe was a punk in the truest sense and one of the first in Boston. He went by the name Mark Dirt. He frequented the Boston clubs and took an active part in the city's nightlife, which was becoming quite visible. Later he appeared at bars such as the East Village’s Pyramid Club with his friend Tabboo! (née Stephen Tashjian) as the Clam Twins, an obnoxious pair of singing drag queens.

Morrisroe's habit of self-invention, along with his need to always inhabit a space outside of regular conventions, revealed his identity as an artist. This thinking was more typical for artists in the 1970s and 80s before artists began to identify as consummate capitalists (à la Jeff Koons in the 1990s).”

HE KNEW THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY

“Perhaps the most important thing about Morrisroe's time at the Boston School was the other artists he would meet. Doug and Mike Starn and Gail Thacker were students while he was there. Nan Goldin and David Armstrong were slightly older but he met them through school as well. Then there was Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who had already left the Museum School before Morrisroe arrived, but was friends with Nan Goldin and Shelburne Thurber, and met Morrisroe later when they both were in New York City.

Notably, there was Jack Pierson (then called Jonathan), who was a first-year student at the nearby Massachusetts College of Art, when Morrisroe was a senior at the Museum School. The two hit it off. Aside from inspiring each other artistically, they were boyfriends for some time with Pierson serving as one of Morrisroe's principal models. Morrisroe's work, like Goldin's, is about his friends and lovers so in this sense the Museum School helped create the fabric of his life and art.”

HE CONTRIBUTED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHY

“The members of the Boston School really helped contribute to the respect that photography would eventually attain in the 1990s. There is a commonality in the autobiographical snapshot aesthetic of much of the work coming out of the Boston School, in addition to a disdain for overly fussy imagery in favour of a messier and instinctive approach more true to life. Bear in mind, all of these artists were distinct in their own right and it is dangerous trying to lump them together in terms of style too tidily.”

HE BELIEVED IN THE POWER OF THE POLAROID

“The immediacy of it appealed to him. He used the Polaroid 195 Land camera as a sketchbook of sorts, experimenting greatly, often on the surface of the developing image, which may be one of his biggest expansions of the language of the medium. With the production of a matching negative as well, he could dive deeper in the darkroom later if happy with his results.

Morrisroe is thought to have shot 2000 Polaroids, so obviously he found the medium fruitful. The other advantage was that the artist could shoot nudes and sexually explicit imagery (including self-portraits) without having to rely on a lab to process the film risking judgement or censor.”

HE HAD AN EXPERIMENTAL APPROACH

“Morrisroe's extreme experimentation with process represented not only his artistic curiosity but his disregard, even disdain, for the formal fastidiousness which had constrained photographers for generations.

When Morrisroe began at the Museum School, he was painting and continued to paint occasionally over the next decade. His manipulation of the Polaroid process and extensive painting on and around the border of his prints definitely prefigured photographers today drawing on, stitching through, and generally manipulating their photographs in order to create some sort of new hybrid medium.”

HE DIDN’T LET HIS AIDS DIAGNOSIS IMPACT HIS ABILITY TO CREATE ART

“Morrisroe tested positive for HIV in 1986, shortly after he moved to New York City from Boston and only three years before he would die of Aids-related complications in 1989. 

He had only been shooting photographs since 1977. His diagnosis created a significant shift in his work, as his moved from friends and lovers back on himself and his own body. As he got sicker, he did not let it impact his artistic output. Instead, he would transform his hospital bathrooms into darkrooms creating gorgeous and profound photograms from his own medical X-rays, eschewing the need for models or camera equipment. These are some of his most powerful work.

Before his death, Morrisroe wisely named his old Boston friend and later New York gallerist, Pat Hearn, as the executrix of his estate. She did more than anyone else to promote and guarantee the legacy of the artist's work. Hearn had opened an eponymous gallery in New York's East Village in 1983. She went on to own and manage highly influential spaces in SoHo and later in Chelsea. She mounted a series of memorial shows of Morrisroe's work in 1994, 1996, and 1999, before her untimely death in 2000, which served to cement his memory and importance.”

HE HAS A POTENT LEGACY

“While the sexual revolution of the 1970s helped open a lot of doors for younger queer artists, there still was not much space for addressing less traditional sexualities in the visual arts. Morrisroe's precocious talent and campy humour, his extreme bravery and overall attitude of "who-really-gives-a-fuck?" helped build upon queer artistic expression first made by the likes of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, James Bidgood, and Peter Hujar only a few years earlier. Morrisroe's fearlessness of embracing his sexuality both in his life and in his work continues to be an inspiration to many.”

Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989): Boy Next Door (Beautiful but Dumb) will open on February 1 – March 24, 2018 at ClampArt, New York