Robert Mapplethorpe's photography combines with punk rock in a new nature exhibit at Selby Gardens
Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the most significant photographers of the late 20th century. His closest friend, musician and writer Patti Smith, remains a punk rock pioneer.
As you step inside Marie Selby Botanical Gardens tropical conservatory, plants and blossoms hang in floating frames inspired by the famous flower photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Nearby, bright green ferns surround an oversized reproduction of a dramatic black and white image of punk rock pioneer Patti Smith that Mapplethorpe took for the cover of her debut album "Horses," which can be heard playing throughout the greenhouse.
The multimedia experience is part of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: "Flowers, Poetry, and Light," the latest installment in a series which explores the work of artists through the lens of their connection to nature.
Selby Gardens — a fixture in Sarasota for decades — was designated The Living Museum in 2019. Past shows include the transformation of the botanical gardens into Marc Chagall’s French Riviera, and the South Pacific for Paul Gaugin.
Carol Ockman, Selby’s curator-at large, says pairing Mapplethorpe's flowers and Smith's writings about nature seemed like a good fit.
"I think they would really like to be coupled in this way," she said of the new exhibit.
“And there's something metaphorical that's quite beautiful here, is that of course, plants and flowers regenerate, so it’s lovely seeing Robert remembered this way and Patti remembering him in parts of this show.”
Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989 from complications due to AIDS, was a major player in elevating photography as an art form. At the time of his first exhibit in 1973, very few art galleries were interested in displaying the medium.
“I don’t think owners at the time understood its value,” said Ockman.
"Some of that is always about the unique quality of painting, the hand of the artist versus something that is mass produced but I think that he showed how aesthetically exquisite a photographic image could be."
By the 1980s, Mapplethorpe’s stock had risen dramatically. He had dozens of exhibitions— some controversial — dealing with human sexuality, and dozens more featuring his floral still life's.
Several of those images can be seen inside a small museum on the grounds of Selby Gardens. Mapplethorpe produced the photographs in 1985 at the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudioin Tampa.
Inside the museum as well, visitors can see historic photographs and mementos from Mapplethorpe and Smith’s early life as artists.
Selby Gardens chief curator, David Berry, says the artist's partnership with Patti Smith, first as a couple and later as creative soulmates, is traced throughout the gardens in horticultural displays.
“We’re telling the story in spaces,” he said. “And the idea is for it to kind of unfold as you're working your way through the different environments.”
Under the leafy canopy of a lofty fig tree, visitors can sit on a park bench underneath a neon sign replica of New York City's Chelsea Hotel, where the couple once lived. Tucked behind plants are small speakers playing excerpts from the audio book of "Just Kids," Patti Smith's National Book Award winning memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe.
Smith, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, also wrote the forward to Mapplethorpe's posthumous book “Flowers.”
Elsewhere, an open air white walled gallery has been erected with orchids and other colorful plants framed as living works of art. Curator Berry says the structure was crafted to best take advantage of the daily changes of shadows and light.
"One of the things that's important to remember is that horticulture is not just a science it is an art form,” he said. “You have a group of incredibly talented people who are trying to translate the artistry of another group of talented people into their own discipline."
At another horticultural installation, silvery foliage representing Mapplethorpe's black and white photographs encircles a planting of vibrant blooms. Atop sits a record player spinning Patti Smith's fourth record "Wave", which featured an album cover shot by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1979.
Their deep friendship would continue in life for another ten years until Mapplethorpe died at the age of 42.
But their collaboration has carried on in Patti Smith’s writings and now at Selby Garden's botanical exhibit , which the rock star very much endorsed during a recent performance there.
"I loved everything about it," she said.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: "Flowers, Poetry, and Light," runs through June 26 at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.