Rock and roll, botanical gardens and photography of flowers. Not the most likely combination, but it’s pulled off in the most breathtaking way in “Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light” at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in downtown Sarasota.
Mapplethorpe and Smith met in 1967, when they were young artists struggling to make it in New York City. Their relationship started as romantic, and grew beyond that to a lifelong partnership as creative soulmates. Mapplethorpe became one of the leading photographers of the 20th century, while Smith achieved prominence as a singer-songwriter, musician, poet and visual artist.
Mapplethorpe made black-and-white portraits, nudes and still lifes. Smith was often his subject; he captured her portrait for the cover of her seminal album Horses. This exhibition focuses on his photographs of cut flowers that he placed in his vast collection of vases.
Before Mapplethorpe died from complications due to AIDS in 1989, he had asked Smith to tell their story and to write the foreword to his photography book, Flowers Mapplethorpe. In 2010, Smith published her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, which chronicles their relationship. Reading this before going to the exhibition will enhance the experience.
Just Kids was the impetus for the exhibition. Jennifer Rominiecki, president and CEO of Selby Gardens, read the memoir and was inspired to connect the artists to the “living museum.” Smith and the Mapplethorpe Foundation were on board, and Smith had input on the exhibition. She visited the gardens and regaled guests with a special appearance, a conversation and a performance in February. It can be viewed at selby.org/watch-an-evening-with-patti-smith.
Smith’s words from Just Kids, Flowers Mapplethorpe and The Coral Sea, her epic poem that is an homage to Mapplethorpe, are peppered around the gardens. Passages were chosen that contain lyrical descriptions of nature and ones that illustrate Smith and Mapplethorpe’s deep connection.
Starting in the Tropical Conservatory, the horticultural team worked its magic to re-create Mapplethorpe’s photographs by framing potted flowers and plants against white walls — it feels like a gallery, complete with benches. Immediately, you can hear Smith’s music playing, lending a rock-and-roll twist that blends beautifully with the sounds of nature.
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Plants that play well with light were chosen to surround the framed ones, drawing on Mapplethorpe’s use of light and shadow in his compositions. Green plants tinged in silver and gray tones signify the black-and-white photography.
An image of one of Mapplethorpe’s orchids appears on a living wall of plants, surrounded by lush greenery.
Smith’s presence is symbolized by colorful plants and flowers. One display contains an excerpt from her foreword to Flowers Mapplethorpe, titled A Final Flower. It reads, in part, “he came, in time, to embrace the flower as the embodiment of all the contradictions reveling within.” With a guitar and amp, it recalls the tableaux of art and trinkets Mapplethorpe and Smith would create in their home.
A reference to the Hasselblad camera like the one used by Mapplethorpe comes at the Koi Pond, where the viewfinder of the camera has been re-created, behind more potted plants on pedestals.
Gallery walls have been added to the gardens near the mangroves that line Sarasota Bay. The section is called Gallery Exposed, and more potted plants and flowers have been placed in nooks. In keeping with Mapplethorpe’s affinity for a variety of pots, no two are the same.
To get the effect of Mapplethorpe’s dramatic play of light in a space where the light is continually changing, the team used decals with shadows on them.
Silvery gray foliage surrounds a planter full of bright flowers, with a turntable placed in the center. Music from Smith’s album Wave plays from the hidden speakers. Song of India plants are used to represent music, one of many fun facts throughout the exhibition.
One particularly sublime spot to drink in Smith’s poetry is near a bridge nestled in the mangroves, with the turquoise water of Sarasota Bay glistening in the background. The quote from The Coral Sea describes mangrove swamps, healing pools and “jungle alive with orchids.”
With 23rd Street Fig, a neon sign reads “Hotel Chelsea,” the New York City landmark where Smith and Mapplethorpe lived together among other artists and creatives.
After winding through the gardens, there’s more to see at the Museum of Botany and the Arts. Large scrims of Smith and Mapplethorpe hang there, bringing a fitting larger-than-life aspect to the artists. There are photographs of them and their living and work spaces, which reveal their effortless coolness.
Smith’s poem Wild Leaves is on a wall here, along with other ephemera including references to her music. By this point, the experience becomes quite emotional, having been immersed in so much beauty and art and the rare, loving friendship Mapplethorpe and Smith shared. It endures.
This exhibition ends with photogravures Mapplethorpe made at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida in Tampa in 1985. Seeing them reinforces how successful the horticultural team was in capturing the essence of Mapplethorpe’s photography.
If you go
“Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light” in on view through June 26. $10-$25, free for children 4 and younger. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. 941-366-5731. selby.org.