This week I read Patti Smith's Just Kids. It's a memoir of when she and her lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, were starving and directionless artists in New York City. It's a remarkable book and I recommend it.
I don't wish to review it and I'm not prepared to write a consideration of either her music or his photographs. I just want to share a few impressions and some quotes.
When they met, they had not yet found their respective media. Both were filling up the walls of their various apartments and lofts with drawings while Robert made jewelry and dabbled in collages. At one point he stripped off a canvas and wrapped its stretcher with erotic pictures from gay men's magazines. It was only later that he took up photography with a borrowed Polaroid camera capable of little more than snapshots. He had a superb eye, but no interest in darkroom work.
Patti was a poet and an actress before she sang rock. As a child of the seventies, she was imbued with vague rebellion which she expresses in this passage about her developing band: "We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands..."
A fitting sentiment from the same person who praised Picasso because he: "…didn't crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed. He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people." Similarly, she rejected Andy Warhol: "His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it."
Quite naturally, the book presents far more of her interior than his, but in one late passage she migrates all the way into his soul: "He would be a smothering cloak, a velvet petal. It was not the thought but the shape of the thought that tormented him. It suspended above him, then mutely dropped, causing his heart to pound so hard, so irregularly, that his skin vibrated and he felt as if he were beneath a lurid mask, sensual yet suffocating."
Her elegy continues with words I wish I had written: "Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed. I stood looking at the sky. The clouds were the colors of a Raphael. A wounded rose. I had the sensation he had painted it himself. You will see him. You will know him. You will know his hand. These words came to me and I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert's hand."
"Two Tulips" (1984), and "Patti Smith" (1986) by Robert Mapplethorpe. Click on the pictures for closer looks.