Patti Smith, Eighteen Stations @Robert Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 80 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted/mounted, and hung against white walls in the five rooms of the gallery. 60 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 2003 and 2015 (there is one image from 1981). These prints are sized between 10×8 and 20×16 (or reverse) and are generally available in editions of 10. 13 of the images are digital inkjet prints (including 1 portrait of Smith made by Lenny Kaye), made between 1981 and 2015. These are sized 10×8 (or reverse) and are available in editions of 5. An additional 6 works are digital inkjet prints with pencil annotations, made in 2016. These are sized 16×20 and are unique. The show also includes an installation with a café chair and table and a wall of notes, jottings, tracings, and string, the pencil annotations continuing onto an adjacent wall. Images from this body of work have been included in the artist’s memoir M Train, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015 (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Patti Smith’s newest photographs are about as out-of-step with current trends in contemporary photography as we could likely imagine. Her images are intimately small, black and white, analog, largely still lifes, and full of wispy poetic shadows and nostalgic blurs. They’re not digitally enhanced or manipulated, they’re not archly conceptual or deadpan cool, and they’re not process-centric or appropriated from elsewhere. Given this disregard for the various ruts of the artistic mainstream, we might be tempted to call them willfully contrarian, but that would imply a self-conscious decision to reject these aesthetics, and that’s not at all what these photographs are about.

Smith’s pictures are something else entirely, and a rarity in today’s image-managed world – they are authentically personal impressions, captured in an open hearted, diaristic manner that matches her loosely drifting thoughts and moods. The works in this show are an extension of the handful of images that accompanied her recent memoir M Train, and as a result, the exhibit feels like a foil to the book, or the other half of a shifting figure ground exercise, where the musings and memories that fill the pages have been replaced by visual signposts that act as triggers for her observations.

M Train follows along as Smith wanders through a limbo period of not writing, or at least not feeling good about her writing. It is largely rooted in her daily routines and small obsessions, from drinking black coffee in various cafes, watching British mysteries and police procedurals on tv, and feeding her cats, to letting her mind float to the comings and goings of the past, where travels with her late husband and journeys to the former homes and gravesites of famous authors and artists fill her mind. We ride shotgun as she revels in a treasured black coat (now lost), a book by Haruki Murakami, and a forlorn Rockaway Beach bungalow, each one dominating her thoughts for a period of time, before ultimately giving way to something else in her endlessly shifting stream of consciousness. Her memoir is like a portal into her unadorned thoughts, where stories unfold, memories are examined, and tangents distract in a tangled web, and time seems to slow down, allowing her the space to sort through her interwoven ideas.

Smith’s photographs are like frozen moments along this dream state path, almost like notecards or personal souvenirs, each one a talisman of something important to her in some way. Many are images of objects owned by her artistic heroes (taken on visits not unlike reverent pilgrimages), where ordinary things touched and used by the mighty take on a kind of mythic significance, as if their genius was somehow present in these quiet items. Ghosts are present everywhere – in Frida Kahlo’s medicine bottles, in Roberto Bolaño’s chair, in Virginia Woolf’s cane, in William Burrough’s bandana, in Robert Graves’ hat – and Smith earnestly communes with these objects, channeling their long lost owners, each image a search for secrets, ideas, and connections with her personal spiritual pantheon. Under her muted but adoring gaze, even Wittgenstein’s radiator, Einstein’s wallpaper, and Tolstoy’s stuffed bear seem to seethe with unexpected resonance.

Smith has also been a consistent and busy gravesite visitor over the years, making extended trips to the resting places of various touchstone figures in her life. Her photographs of these graves are like personal hand-gathered rubbings, each one rich with thickly felt interest and almost religious poignancy. Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, Dylan Thomas, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and even the chess champion Bobby Fischer make appearances, the dead made living once again via these images of markers. Each photograph is treated like a portrait, carefully playing with shadows, cropping, and nearby flowers, each one a durable signpost for Smith to ideas that she has cherished.

Both the book and the photographs offer a sense of meditative roaming, both mental and physical. As Smith grasps at ideas, turning them over in her head, past and present intermingle, leading to a repeated engagement with loss and a feeling of mourning seeping into much of the imagery. The dead are very active in Smith’s intellectual life, and that ache of the missing reverberates through even her more mundane images of friends, empty cafes she has frequented (the furniture from one of her favorites, Café ‘Ino, is part of an installation in the gallery), and decades-old travel snaps with her husband. We can feel her emotions right on the surface of her pictures, jangling in the exposed air, as much of what she is doing now is looking back, not forward.

Many will find the moodiness in Smith’s dark photographs a bit cloying, and if it was an affect, we would certainly be right to call out its self-conscious almost Pictorial romanticism as a sham. But in Smith’s case, the pictures reflect a genuine approach to her interior life, and when we read her pictures without skepticism or irony, her commitment to her own worldview seems somehow risky and brave. Her photographs offer us an honest view into a wildly successful artist still looking for herself, and traveling that lonely road of discovery largely on her own even now. In that sense, this exhibit is almost like a scrapbook or family album of her creative process, where long dead artists and authors are taking the place of supportive aunts and uncles and mentoring elders. Seen together, it’s a heady brew of influences, inspirations, and memories, an intensely-personal aggregation of quirky nuances and subtleties that mimics the thoughtful rhythms of a life in search of art.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The gelatin silver prints are either $3000, $4000, or $6500 each based on size. The digital inkjet prints are $500, $1000, or $1500 each, while those with unique pencil annotations are $18000 each. Smith’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Patti Smith, Robert Miller Gallery, Knopf Doubleday

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