Young artists Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met on a New York City street in 1967. They were newcomers to town—short on cash, hopeful and passionate about art.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith—Flowers, Poetry, and Light opened last month at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in downtown Sarasota, Florida.
“Selby Gardens is thrilled to bring together this curated selection of nature-inspired works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith and present them for the first time ever in a botanical garden as part of our innovative Goldstein Exhibition Series,” said Jennifer Rominiecki, President & CEO of Selby Gardens. “Marking the first time that Selby Gardens has presented the work of a living artist and a contemporary photographer in the series, this exhibition creates an immersive experience for our visitors. Our gardens and floral displays will set the stage for a unique cultural encounter and exchange with two of the most iconic artists of our time.”
I visited “The Living Museum” a few days after the show’s opening in mid-February. The same week I read Smith’s National Book Award winning Just Kids. (All Smith quotes below are from Just Kids.) I haven’t stopped thinking about the exhibition, the book and Patti Smith’s music since. (Listen to Smith’s People Have the Power with U2.) The garden’s framed installations of potted living plants mimicked the seductive style that Mapplethorpe had used in the 1970s.
There were short queues of amateur photographers lined up to prove the point. A neon sign, flowers, a turntable, music, prose and poetry animated the walkaround.
Elsewhere, Mapplethorpe’s portraits and flowers, illustrating “lightness and dark” and “symmetry and asymmetry,” are displayed in the Museum of Botany and Arts. They oozed sexuality— naturally and artistically.
“I was attracted to Robert’s work because his visual vocabulary was akin to my poetic one, even if we seemed to be moving in different destinations. Robert would always tell me, ‘Nothing is finished until you see it.’”
I became a fan of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens two years ago when Salvador Dali’s Gardens of the Mind turned me kid-like with joy while I was surrounded by orchids, bromeliads, bamboos, palms and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Selby is sufficiently, but not overwhelmingly, plant geeky. I am a novice with subtropical and tropical plants. The labeling was good. I scribbled notes as fast as I could. Selby’s plant palette, so different from temperate Kentucky’s, may not need to be left to a faraway dream for those in colder climates. (I have been studying with Marianne Willburn, my Garden Rant partner, and author of Tropical Plants and How to Love Them: Building a Relationship with Heat-Loving Plants When You Don’t Live in the Tropics.)
There was plenty to explore at Selby. I shifted between plants and art along the “Poetry Walk.” The downtown gardens are located on 15 acres, adjacent to Sarasota Bay. You could make a foot race out of it and walk end to end in ten minutes or saunter for hours and let the gardens and art come to you. I recommend sauntering.
My return visit felt like a homecoming. Time slowed to a crawl. Kids played and grownups retrieved phantom curiosity.
“We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed and he affectionately squeezed my hand. ‘Oh, take their picture,’ said the woman to the bemused husband. ‘I think they’re artists.’ ‘Oh, go on,’ he shrugged. ‘They’re just kids.’”
The choice of Mapplethorpe and Smith for a “living exhibition” was inspired. I imagine there were discussions about if and why Selby should couple Smith, an artist, poet, writer, activist and musician with Mapplethorpe, a multimedia artist and photographer who gained notoriety pushing the boundaries of propriety.
The show was indisputably suggestive of love and art, celebrating two talented artists who never ceased encouraging and loving each other. Their story was captured at Selby with a lens and the fruitfulness of flowers.
“Robert and I kept our vow. Neither would leave the other. I never saw him through the lens of sexuality. My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life…”
High schoolers learn, or should learn, how pollen lands on a flower’s stigma and makes its way down the pollen tube where fertilization proceeds. The better students may even learn how to distinguish superior from inferior ovaries. Perhaps that’s enough, though a curriculum including biological hermaphroditism might run into headwinds with school boards.
“He (Robert) did not feel redeemed by the work he did. He did not seek redemption. He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination… Robert and I kept our vow. Neither would leave the other. I never saw him through the lens of sexuality. My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life…”
Public gardens have reached beyond the botanic world in recent years to lure guests and hook new gardeners and naturalists. Dale Chihuly’s glass works seem to be on a world tour. Visitors have poured through garden turnstiles from Kew in England to the high plains of the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix to see his colorful art pieces. Chihuly’s Gardens and Glass exhibit next to the Seattle Space Needle is a spectacular force.
There have been a few, among the orthodox gardening community, who feebly argued that it was a betrayal to plant collections and gardens to mix art genres. This view, fortunately, faded faster than a night-blooming Cereus.
There are earlier examples of art and gardens.
Grottoes and trompe l’oeils are old school. The 16th century Italian Parco di Mostri (Park of the Monsters) with its sculpted war elephant, a frightening fish head, and an Edvard Munch-like Screampiece (with the inscription “All Reason Departs”) is provocative and bizarre. Salvador Dali drew inspiration at Parco di Mostri.
The 16,000-acre Bernheim Arboretum and Forest, across Highway 245 from the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2019 with an exhibition of “Forest Giants in a Giant Forest.” (And you thought Chihuly was BIG?) Bernheim has stayed true to a vision that includes a “combination of an arboretum and natural forested areas infused with arts to create a unique site to experience nature.”
My short time at Selby was coming to an end. The gardens were closing. I wasn’t ready to leave.
One simple litmus test for any successful garden is the inexorable feeling of harmonizing joy. This doesn’t happen in every garden, or every time.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens passed the test again.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light will continue until June 26.