Recommended Reading: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

While I’m not normally in the habit of making apologies on behalf of this blog’s frequency or lack thereof, I will be the first to admit I’ve been especially remiss lately. This would be down to a combination of overwork and an especially persistent cold; I’m hoping the latter clears off in time for a requisite day of Toronto gallery-going early next week because MAP needs a review regardless of the sorry state of my sinuses.

The sole upside of being ill has been more reading time, which has allowed me to finally finish Just Kids, Patti Smith’s recently published memoir of her early artistic life with Robert Mapplethorpe. Though this pseudo-romance set within a cultural history of New York City in the sixties and seventies is endearing enough on its own, what makes this such a compelling read is Smith’s utterly un-ironic take on the uncertain creative path that both her and Mapplethorpe pursued to become the vital figures they are in recent music and art history respectively. There’s something reassuringly familiar in watching a young Robert resist taking his own photos for so many years, fixated as he was on making necklaces and building altars; Patti, meanwhile, took her own tangential path towards music by way of drawing, writing and her obsession for all things 19th century Parisian.

While the accidents of creative breakthroughs are familiar to an artist of any era, what seems to set this time apart from today is the ease of legitimate social networks revolving around the Chelsea Hotel while Patti and Robert resided there. The number of major cultural personalities moving through their lives at that time is simply staggering, but what stands out in these anecdotes is not just having known these names, but having met and understood these people through casual, almost accidental circumstances brought about by sharing openly of the same physical space and neediness of each other. These cumulative social connections proved essential to Mapplethorpe’s career in particular with the addition of wealthy patrons and companions like Sam Wagstaff to his circle, with Patti Smith drawing upon the same larger network in search of publishers, promoters and musical collaborators. It’s a process that is given a great deal of cachet in our current online culture, but reading Smith’s account makes me wonder whether this more actively engaged form of networking is a lost skill, or rather one that is only possible in that particular time and place.

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Regardless of social tactics, my primary interest remained in the more private aspects of both artists’ endeavours as creative makers dedicated to their craft, often without quite knowing what form that discipline should take. The early stages of the journey are hopelessly romantic with anecdotes of sharing small, wretched spaces and scrounging for materials, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing that labour pay off in the refinement of their works, both as individuals and as collaborators. One of my favourite moments in the life of this pair has always been Mapplethorpe’s photo for the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses album, and I was beyond delighted to read about the seeming ease with which that iconic image came about – a single moment in which years of learning and knowing have coalesced through skill:

‘The light was already fading. He had no assistant. We never talked about what we would do, or what it would look like. He would shoot it. I would be shot.

‘I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That is all.

‘Sam [Wagstaff]‘s apartment was spartan, all white and nearly empty, with a tall avocado tree by the window overlooking Fifth Avenue. There was a massive prism that refracted the light, breaking it into rainbows cascading on the wall across from a white radiator. Robert placed me by the triangle. His hands trembled slightly as he readied to shoot. I stood.

‘The clouds kept moving back and forth. Something happened with his light meter and he became slightly agitated. He took a few shots. He abandoned the light meter. A cloud went by and the triangle disappeared. He said, “You know, I really like the whiteness of the shirt. Can you take the jacket off?”

‘I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.

‘”It’s back,” he said.

‘He took a few more shots.

‘”I got it.”

‘”How do you know?”

‘”I just know.”

‘He took twelve pictures that day.

‘Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. “This one has the magic,” he said.

‘When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.’

(From Patti Smith, Just Kids. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. 250-251.)


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