Poet, Punk Rock Pioneer, Memoirist, Visual Artist To Make Appearance To Honor Arthur Rimbaud
By SUSAN DUNNE
October 16, 2011
'What is the point of creating art? For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? … Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself?"
That's Patti Smith talking, as quoted from the National Book Award-winning "Just Kids," her 2010 memoir of her young adult years, navigating the New York art scene withRobert Mapplethorpe.
And now Smith has given the answer that applies to her: She is talking to herself.
"When I'm on my own with my camera, taking these pictures, it feels as if I am in a room of my own, a self-contained world," Smith said in an interview with Susan Talbott, CEO of the Wadsworth Atheneum Msueum of Art and curator of Smith's show there.. "The pictures, in their simplicity, offer that world."
But Smith also hopes her world speaks to others: "Ultimately, my great hope is that people might obtain one and place it above their desk in a room of their own."
"Patti Smith: Camera Solo," opens Oct. 20 with a spoken-word performance by the poet-punk trailblazer-visual artist. The interview quoted is printed in the exhibit's catalog.
Even the title of the exhibit reflects the highly private nature of Smith's photography.
"I was touring in Italy and visited Catello Longhi de Paolis di Fumone, where Saint Celestine V had been imprisoned. I came upon a room called the camera solo," Smith is quoted as saying. " 'What does camera solo mean?' I asked, as I liked the phrase. I was told that this was the count's own room and that no one was to enter."
The exhibit, made up of 60 black-and-white silver gelatin prints photographed with a vintage Land 250 Polaroid camera, is the first museum presentation of Smith's photographic work in the United States, Talbott said.
Talbott praised Smith's work, and gave special consideration to Smith's "symbolic portraits."
"The symbolic portrait, in its simplest sense, is when the artist instead of painting a portrayal of the person captures a portrait of a symbolic or iconic object which represents the person," Talbott said in an interview.
Among these portraits seen in the show are Virginia Woolf's bed and cane, Rudolf Nureyev's slippers, Robert Graves' hat, John Keats' and Victor Hugo's bed, Smith's father's cup, Herman Hesse's typewriter, Robert Bolaño's chair, several things owned by Mapplethorpe, and, her greatest muse, French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is represented in one photo by a fork and a spoon, in another by his family's atlas, and in another by a road.
"As a child I had great respect for the inanimate object," she told Talbott. "Both my grandmothers died young. So a mandolin or a lace coverlet belonging to them seemed very precious. Their objects were the only way I could invoke them. I guess that sense of things extended to the poets and writers I loved."
She describes shooting Woolf's bed: "I only had two shots and really wanted to take a nice picture. … I sat down in a chair and asked for her counsel. I didn't want to fail. I pushed it to the darkest setting and concentrated on her single bed. The crease and the eyelet of the coverlet formed a cross. I felt her with me."
And Bolaño's chair: "An unremarkable chair but it was the chair that he loved, on which he sat for hours on end writing his masterpiece 2666."
Mapplethorpe's slippers: "He loved his slippers — black velvet with his initials embroidered in threads of burnished gold. I was very envious of them, and he would tease me, saying 'You know you want my slippers.' And I guess I did. When he died, I pined for his things. Not valuable things, just small things that spoke of him."
And her father's cup: "My father loved it and nobody was allowed to drink from it. Nobody touched my father's cup. When my father died, my mother gave it to me, but I have never been able to use it. It's in a special glass case, and though I often take it out and look at it, I would never drink from it."
Other images seek out the beauty in everyday things: a beaker, a workspace, a river, a seagull, hand clutching a flower, Smith's own guitar. At least her guitar is an "everyday thing" for Smith, if not for the rest of the world.
Patti Smith was born in Chicago on Dec. 30, 1946 and was raised in New Jersey in a family that strongly emphasized reading. After high school, she briefly attended Glassboro State College, then headed to New York and met Mapplethorpe. The two bonded quickly, becoming best friends and lovers.
Smith later decamped to Paris with her sister, earning money as a street performer, but returned to New York, moving in to the Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe, soaking in the atmosphere of that legendary artists' dive. Both strived to get noticed in the New York art world, each taking time to find their niches and often struggling to make ends meet, although Smith worked steadily in bookstores, and supplemented their income by finding underpriced early editions and re-selling them.
Mapplethorpe eventually found fame as a photographer; Smith wrote in her memoir that he started with Polaroids, which were "perfect for his impatient nature." Over time, Mapplethorpe accepted his homosexuality; he and Smith remained close until Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS in 1989.
Smith acted in plays, co-wrote "Cowboy Mouth" with Sam Shepard and drew attention for her poetry and music. Her band was a popular fixture in the New York club scene when, in 1975, they recorded what is considered one of the greatest albums in rock history, "Horses," which later earned Smith the unofficial title of Godmother of Punk. Mapplethorpe took an iconic portrait shot of Smith for the album's cover. In the years after, Smith recorded and toured extensively with the Patti Smith Group; her biggest hit was "Because the Night," co-written byBruce Springsteen.
For most of the '80s and early '90s, Smith lived quietly with her husband (musician Fred "Sonic" Smith) and children, but later re-emerged as a performing artist and, increasingly, as a visual artist. Throughout her performing career, Smith published about a dozen books of poetry. She also has spent the last several years collecting lifetime achievement awards; she is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2005 was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. This year, she won the Polar Music Prize. She talked about music as part of of the Connecticut Forum in Hartford in May, 2010.
Talbott met Smith when she was working at the Smithsonian Institution and Smith did several benefit shows for that museum. From that connection, Talbott approached Smith with the possibility of doing a show in Hartford. "There were so many synchronicities with her and the Wadsworth Atheneum, starting with Sam Wagstaff, who was a curator here," Talbott said. Wagstaff was a mentor to Smith and Mapplethorpe, and was Mapplethorpe's lifetime companion until Wagstaff's death in 1987.
On Thursday, Oct. 20, Smith will give a presentation, for members only, in honor of Rimbaud, on the poet's 157th birthday. Smith has honored Rimbaud on his birthday every year since 1974. The event is sold out.
Also part of the exhibit are two multi-media installations, one inspired by Rimbaud, the other by the objects Smith photographed for her collection.
On Friday, Oct. 21, Smith will sign books from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and will hang out in the galleries for conversations with students from University of Connecticut, St. Joseph College, Trinity College andUniversity of Hartford.
On Nov. 10 at 7 p.m., the museum's Aetna theater will show "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," a 2008 documentary about the artist, and the film's director, Steven Sebring, will be present.
On Nov. 12 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the museum's Second Saturday for Families event will focus on symbolic portraits.
PATTI SMITH: CAMERA SOLO opens Friday, Oct. 21, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford. It runs through Feb. 19, 2012. Hours are Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Details: http://www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at