Patti Smith, Up Close, Fragments of Generations Together
Painting of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, care of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, now on display at Robert Miller Gallery (photographed by Susan M. Kirschbaum)
“I ain’t nothing but a scrappy poet.” Says punk rock songstress/poet/photographer/painter Patti Smith, in Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Steven Sebring’s documentary that aired on PBS just last week. In last night’s collaborative installation, both Smith and Sebring, exhibited paintings, photos, computer videos, personal memorabilia, and even a “live cast” of poet (and painter) William Blake’s head, notably taken by forming plaster on the live Blake as opposed to his carcass.
Musician/artist R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe– who started writing songs after hearing Smith’s album Horses– explained to me the Blake head. (It’s not even a bust, just head.) “You know why he’s scowling?” Stipe asked. “They stuck straws up his nose and the plaster started to drip.” Blake’s stark skull in the middle of this quite personal exhibit of Patti’s life story — from her favorite childhood dress; what resembles a photo of a medieval jousting mask that her son Jackson models in Sebring’s film; her first husband, late artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s monogrammed slippers; abstract paintings and black and white photos of Parisian landmarks — only testifies her first true loves. William Blake. Arthur Rimbaud. Words. Then, words that spark images and verse that gives breath to song. Of William Burroughs who often sat front row at Smith’s punk shows at CBGB’s, Smith says. “It was an honor to have him there. He would just nod.”
Stipe kept saying of the exhibit. “This is so modern.” And even though the pieces ran back to Smith’s childhood and in some cases, possibly Rimbaud’s dreams, it did feel as though we had stumbled into her backstage and private wardrobe. She and Sebring could blow up vintage objects in photos and place books, like a Joan of Arc tome next to an old black typewriter and make us covet them more than an IPhone. Real to the touch and expanding to the mind, we could walk around and see as she does.
Sebring found his muse. He spent twelve years with “the godmother of punk” (as she is known), filming her as a mother, musician, glutton of phrase, scribbler, painter, pack rat, drifter. In between personal arts, she reveals her feelings about family, from first husband, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her brother Todd, who passed the same year as guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, the father of Patti’s son and daughter Jesse. Even Patti’s parents, still living in Deptford, New Jersey, open their home on film and cook up some burgers.
Last night, several paid homage. A few of us, including Sebring, Smith, and writer Bob Morris, headed to dinner uptown at the home of Betsy Wittenborn Miller. One Miller son, Chris, who once worked at his father’s gallery (and threw some wonderful intimate soirees among budding artists before the term “hipster” was coined), rustled up a feast. Call it a debut of sorts for his new catering business, with beef stew, roasted swiss chard, carrots, green beans, a salad with figs, and a massive vat of chocolate mousse and raspberries on a long dining buffet table. Given my recollections of the younger Miller in party hats with vodka bottles, I suppose we’re all grown up now.
But there was Smith, wearing big black combat boots and chatting with pals in corners as some guests practically bowed down before her. She still knew how to keep her private sanctuary at a festive supper. Didn’t matter that we had just gotten the “Cliff’s Notes” to her life story.
Her friend and photo assistant for the evening, Adam Whitney Nichols, a Southern boy in a bow tie and nifty tweed jacket, stood close by. He carried a vintage Polaroid box camera that he loaded with fresh Polaroid film Smith had hoarded and saved. She found him at a train station as they passed each other, both reading classic literature. I can’t remember the authors’ names as Nichols told me after too much wine, but one sounded German, the other Russian. Smith was intrigued. So she talked to him. He’s now working on a memoir of his family, including a grandfather who served in World War II and a dad in Vietnam.
Perhaps, Patti Smith is a reincarnation of Rimbaud or Blake himself. I would not be surprised.
(Exhibit: Patti Smith and Steven Sebring: Objects of Life, January 6th — February 6, 2010, Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th Street) Bonus track:**GLORIA 01 Gloria
Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, and Adam Whitney Nichols (with box camera!)/photo: Susan M. Kirschbaum
William Blake’s head/Shot by Michael Stipe, for Susan Kirschbaum