Mapplethorpe and Smith: Just Kids
Posted by: Neil Hollands
We’ve written about this one before on Book Group Buzz, but it’s a great choice for book groups, so it’s worth revisiting. It’s Patti Smith’s memoir about her development as an artist, particularly the connection she had with Robert Mapplethorpe. Why is Just Kids a great choice? Patti Smith is a godmother of punk and performance poetry, but despite her influence, she’s not exactly a household name today. Mapplethorpe may be better known, but he’s an extremely controversial figure, a photographer who made beauty out of images of hustlers, bondage, and masochism. He died from AIDS in 1989.
The pair had an unconventional relationship, sometimes demonstrating a startling level of naivete on her part. Both young artists are prone to making a fetish of Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, and other figures perhaps as important for being icons of rebellion and the new in art as for the art they produced. Smith is always generous, but it’s not hard to read between the lines and see that sometimes Mapplethorpe was very difficult. What can’t be denied, and what ultimately makes this book soar, is the tenderness that she captures. She came to New York City without connections in 1967, just after putting an unexpected child up for adoption. One of the first people she met was Mapplethorpe, and the two became an awkward, impoverished, but nurturing couple. Mapplethorpe was trying to come to grips with his homosexuality, a factor of which Smith was unaware at first. Later, she continued to live with him as he had affairs with men and even experimented with hustling on the street. The bond between them survived many difficult situations because they made each other better, gave each other courage to pursue unusual paths in art and performance, served as both muse and emotional support system.
Even if you aren’t into the art these two create, I think you’ll find the book interesting. It’s a testimony to the power of convergence to make history out of figures who alone might well have done little. It’s an ode to New York City in a time when the city was tougher but had unique character and heart. It’s a documentary of how artists develop through a mix of persistence, talent, timely connections, and good fortune.
Smith rubbed shoulders with so many great talents, many of whom–Janis Joplin, Jim Carroll, Jimi Hendrix–would flame out too young. Andy Warhol and his Factory are important here. So are beat poets, rock and roll innovators, art impresarios, and the residents of the Chelsea Hotel. Most of Smith’s tale follows her and Robert’s development in the late 60s and early 70s, although she does finish with his death in 1989.
If I’ve seen one criticism of the book, it’s that parts of it seem overwritten to some readers. If you feel this way, I encourage you to listen to some of the audiobook, which Smith reads herself. Her voice is rough, utterly barren of pretentiousness. She has a working class, upstate New York accent that turns “drawings” into “drawlings” and often mispronounces words. But hearing her read her work, one realizes that Smith feels every word, and though she may at times lapse into romantic purple passages, she’s not faking it–every syllable is authentic.