patti smith revisits the earliest days of her relationship with robert mapplethorpe
The Godmother of Punk read from an expansive new book about the iconoclast’s work, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, at a New York bookstore.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith on Coney Island, 1969. Enlarged by Robert Mappethorpe, 1978, gelatin silver print on canvas. Photographer unknown. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
It's always moving to hear Patti Smith reflect on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, but extra magical when she's speaking at a New York City bookstore. Not because literary outposts are unusual turf for the National Book Award-winning Godmother of Punk, but because bookstores were such formative settings in her mythological creative partnership with the late photographer — a relationship she chronicled vibrantly in her 2010 memoir Just Kids. Yesterday, Smith spoke candidly about her time with Mapplethorpe at Rizzoli's Lower Manhattan outpost, and read from her essay in the just-released Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, an expansive new monograph about Mapplethorpe's oeuvre, reaching far beyond his photography. "He really felt a calling within him to be an artist. In order to make this decision and live by it, he had to do a few very difficult, very brave things," Smith said. "I met him just at that moment -- 20 years old -- where he really felt his destiny."
In Just Kids, Smith writes about Mapplethorpe as her friend, lover, and creative collaborator, but chiefly, as her "co-conspirator in survival." Yesterday, she spoke about the transformative nature of their decade-spanning partnership. In spite of the course their lives took, their enduring desire to create art kept them side by side from their first apartment in Clinton Hill to their room in the legendary Chelsea Hotel. The Archive catalogues the homespun creations Smith described in Just Kids, and in doing so, illustrates their mutual, compulsive drive to create and consume art. "I'm especially moved by this book because since I met Robert in the summer of 1967, I got to see him execute many of the early works that are in the book," said Smith, reflecting on their time living by Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.
Smith spoke of her days working at Scribner's Bookstore so that Mapplethorpe could fully devote himself to making art. That ever-changing inventory of their "hippie oasis" turned "S&M palace," in Smith's words, is reunited in the new book. Co-authored by Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick, The Archive is the result of the generous donation the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation made to the Getty Research Center, which also helped bring to life LACMA's new landmark retrospective of Mapplethorpe's photography. Terpak and Brunnick spent over a month unpacking the artist's expansive and well-preserved body of work. In doing so, they realized the dynamic practice Smith's writings revealed, from Mapplethorpe's intricate etchings to his exquisite collages of religious iconography and men's magazines. Smith shared anecdotes about the talismanic necklaces he'd fashion (and how she "cased the joint" at the Chelsea Hotel's restaurant swiping lobster and crab claws for his jewelry before busboys could get to them) as well as the tie rack he made her for her birthday.
"For a while, Robert was doing very delicate drawings that in some ways reflected his experiments with LSD. I thought they were so beautiful and I was very attached to them, but it was very bad to get attached to anything Robert did," Smith explained, "because he was like Picasso -- you'd get attached to this kind of drawing and come home one day and he'd be doing all different pictures," she said. "He started cutting out various holy cards, reinventing them, working them into collages and montages. And I fell in love with them." One day, she came home and found him splicing photographs from a book about Tod Browning's film Freaks within tantric books, creating game boards. "Sometimes, it'd be that quick," said Smith. "I'd leave in the morning and he was dancing with Saints, I'd come home in the night and he was dancing with freaks."
Text Emily Manning
Images courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art