Thoughts on life after the PhD
“Why can’t I write something that will awaken the dead?”
So writes Patti Smith near the end of Just Kids, the memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe that can’t really be classified as a memoir. Smith doesn’t so much chronicle as paint, scrapbook, and weave. Her book is like the bizarre but beautiful collages she and Mapplethorpe create in their tiny hotel rooms and apartments–hodgepodge, arresting, and possessing the ability to elevate the mundane to the sublime.
Smith may not awaken the dead with her book, but she is an expert conjurer–of young love, of New York on the brink of discovery and possibility, of the Chelsea Hotel and the days in which one might run into Salvador Dali and Janis Joplin in the lobby in the same day. She had come to New York just out of high school determined to be an artist but with no idea how. Her chance meeting with Robert Mapplethorpe led to a years-long collaboration that moved between romantic and platonic love but was always intense and intimate. As Smith describes it, the two of them fell asleep in each other’s arms after their first long night together and after that never really left each other’s side except to go to work.
The road to fame for both of them–through photography for Mapplethorpe, through punk music, visual art and poetry for Smith–was a long and winding one. Throughout it all, they remained determined to “live for art and art alone.” They were destitute–Smith describes the pain and frustration she felt when, after scrounging together fifty-five cents for a Horn and Hardart Automat sandwich, she arrived only to discover that the price had been raised to sixty-five cents. (The subsequent story of how Allen Ginsburg then bought her the sandwich because he mistook her for a “pretty boy” is one of the book’s many gems.) Mapplethorpe and Smith worked only enough to pay rent and eat (and were frequently unable to do both), devoting the rest of their time to writing, drawing, and just playing with whatever artistic medium struck their fancy. It would take years of collages, poems, paintings, sketches, and polaroids before Mapplethorpe would have his first successful photography exhibition and Smith would release her groundbreaking album Horses.
Smith and Mapplethorpe saw beauty in the everyday. With their very limited money they scoured New York’s used bookstores and thrift shops for pieces of fabric, plastic, metal, and glass that would become haunting collages and the beginnings of Mapplethorpe’s famous photo aesthetic (his longtime lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff, called Mapplethorpe’s signature backgrounds “a black you can get lost in.”). Much of Just Kids consists of loving descriptions of random objects–a collage of words. Reading the book and then walking in a shopping mall, every plastic flower, every cotton scarf, every tacky rubber rain hat seems to possess some new artistic soul. Smith truly lets the reader see, if only fleetingly and with a squint, through an artist’s eyes.
Beyond its moving glimpse into the lives of uncompromising artists and rebels in a New York that is at once utterly believable and too romantic to be real, Just Kids is an amazing piece of writing. Some have commented that Smith’s recollections are probably more poetry than fact, but the distinction doesn’t seem to matter. A non-linear story that focuses more on images and impressions than actual events is perhaps the only way Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story could have been told.
Just Kids is also a reminder that great art takes time and patience. Knowing how the story ends–that Mapplethorpe became a respected and controversial photographer, and Smith the godmother of punk–the journey can be maddening. They both struggle with their artistic voices, with the messages they want to convey, with what medium will convey it best. At times they just seem to be adrift. But every misstep and chance encounter ultimately leads them to their particular brand of greatness. Mapplethorpe is given a cheap camera by a friend and initially takes pictures because he can no longer afford to buy magazines. Smith is not a musician but comes to punk through poetry readings accompanied by a piano. Today we scoff at the idea of “finding yourself,” but that was exactly what Smith and Mapplethorpe were doing. In an era when academia in particular seems so keen to make the educational process faster and more efficient, eliminating the valuable time that every creative talent needs to stumble and discover, Smith and Mapplethorpe’s stories deserve our attention.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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