Moving freely across diverse communities and tribes, the career of photographer Ari Marcopoulos has spanned the portrayal of New York street life and the downtown art and music scene; images of professional skateboarders and snowboarders; portraits of the artist’s family at home in California; and landscapes from around the world. The mid-career survey on view in Galleries 4 and 5 offers a sampling from thirty years of the artist’s work.
Marcopoulos was born in the Netherlands, and he recalls that growing up in a small country evoked a strong yearning for other cultures. He remembers listening to music by Terry Riley, John Coltrane, Arnold Schoenberg, David Bowie, and the Talking Heads, which he found in local record shops. Dutch television showed many European and American films: Fassbinder, Pasolini, and Godard inspired the young Marcopoulos, as did American films like Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976), which he appreciated for their raw subject matter and direct simplicity.
In the 1980s Marcopoulos began his own artistic journey on the streets of New York City. His approach was exceptionally engaged: Marcopoulos had an uncanny ability to mix in and become virtually part of the community he was photographing. He photographed at artists’ and musicians’ lofts, as well as on the streets, and he frequented East Village art galleries and legendary nightspots like the Mudd Club and Area. It was during this time that Marcopoulos met and became friends with the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he photographed in his bathtub, capturing a moment of intimacy and vulnerability.
Marcopoulos began to build a body of work that included portraits of up-and-coming rappers like Rakim, LL Cool J, Rob Base, and Public Enemy. He was fascinated by these young musicians and the strong influence their music and fashion were having on the culture at large. Chance meetings were the basis of a number of Marcopoulos’s early portrait photographs, such as the close shot of 1980s rappers the Fat Boys in the front seat of their car, and another of Miles Davis leaving Avery Fisher Hall.
Marcopoulos continued his work with musicians in the 1990s by chronicling the onstage action and behind-the-scenes friendships of the Beastie Boys. He directed several of the group’s videos, such as Something’s Got to Give (1994), which incorporated found footage in the manner of Bruce Conner’s collaged films of the 1960s. In Conga + Bass (also 1994), a short black-and-white video, Marcopoulos focused on an under-recognized aspect of rap: the recording of live instrumentation. In a period that overlapped with that of his Beastie Boys work, Marcopoulos became interested in a community of young skateboarders, and created a series that contrasted images of extreme physical effort and concentration with pictures of the everyday lives of his subjects.
The forces at play in Marcopoulos’s early work—a punk spirit infused with the emergence of graffiti and hip-hop; and the youthful athleticism found in the skater series—were revisited when the artist married Jennifer Goode, had two sons, and created a tribe of his own.
Ari Marcopoulos: Within Arm’s Reach is funded in part by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, with additional support from Stefano Pilati, PKIRKEBY Inc., Barbara Balkin Cottle and Robert Cottle, and Linda Nations and Robert Mott.