JTF (just the facts): Published in 2010 by HarperCollins/Ecco (here). 308 pages, with 37 black and white photographs, 4 reproductions of drawings, and 2 reproductions of poems. (Cover shot at right, via Amazon.)
Comments/Context: Patti Smith’s much acclaimed memoir came wrapped in tissue paper on Christmas morning, and I finished it several days before we rang in the New Year – I just couldn’t put it down. While it’s easy to pile on the praise after a book has been so universally celebrated, this story is really something special, much more than just the shared tale of two famous artists.
Patti Smith’s story of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe is perhaps the best description of the elusive process of creating a life in art that I have ever encountered. It is told with a quiet, matter-of-fact romanticism, her words restrained and tender, tinged with innocence and a surprising lack of bravado. It is a narrative full of difficult times, unglamorous poverty, and optimistic serendipity, their lives rooted in an understated and serious mutual commitment to relentlessly trying, to figuring it out along the way and to never giving up.
Given Mapplethorpe’s later career in photography, it is fascinating to see him struggling with beads and jewelry, making altarpieces out of found objects and collaged images from skin magazines, and generally looking for his artistic voice while hustling to make ends meet. Smith similarly wanders from drawing to poetry, working at bookstores to pay the bills, finally finding rock music as her outlet. They build a solid support structure out of their evolving personal relationship, and find a sense of community in the eccentric bohemian tenants of the Chelsea Hotel. Their dedication to each other and to their art is honest and unwavering.
While there are plenty of quirky anecdotes and star sightings to spice up the 1970s New York story line, I think it is Smith’s pared down, purity of prose that makes this book so memorable. It dives into truth and genuine emotion with youthful sensitivity, finding goodness and selflessness in a gawky, gritty world. Her view of Mapplethorpe is affectionate and devoted, even when the situation gets complicated. In the end, they both find their own successful paths forward, but the artistic road to getting there is anything but direct or easy for either of them.
My favorite part of the book is Smith’s memory of Mapplethorpe singling out a specific image and saying “That’s the one with the magic.” It’s a tiny moment, but for me, it gets to the essence of what art is all about: the search for a view of the world where the mundane is transformed into the magnetic, where an unknown original voice shows us something we haven’t seen anywhere before. So whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to live vicariously through these two as they struggle to find themselves; it’s a subtly spellbinding story of making a life in art.