art news & reviews & Interviews. jeff bergman, editor

35th – Patti Smith / Just Kids


Today in the “totally late to the party” review of Books, Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  I wouldn’t say that I have too much to offer in the way of literary insight, but it is a worthwhile recommendation and if you’re interested then read on.

Patti Smith created a beautiful autobiography in the form of an extended eulogy for her partner, Robert Mapplethorpe.  ‘Partner’ as a word lacks the weight of their true relationship.  Smith allows us to peer briefly into their lives as lovers.  Mostly the stories of their partnership are of propping one another up when that’s all they were charged with and no one cared much who they were and what they needed.  It’s a beautifully told story.  It made me sad for our many losses; for people and their art and the places that have been whitewashed since. Ever a storyteller, Smith spins us her sweet and sad yarn of struggle and growth.

Mapplethorpe comes across as a man of huge talent and similar appetites.  Smith seems to say: Why dwell on these images we have seen?  We know that man from his photographs.  What else was he? Let me tell you.  I love that Smith’s rose colored glasses are actually grime covered windows.  The physicality of the spaces they shared, the clothes they wore and the few possessions they had are eulogized as well.  Hearing these stories makes you realize that these place and objects aren’t so much lost as they were traded for stories.

Still there is no self-aggrandizing here, only admiration for one another.  Smith gives us her love for Robert as well as her own doubt and triumphs.  She also tells us about the ghost she chases:  Bob Dylan.  They meet a few times but it seems like a vision of a Madonna at times of trial and times of joy.  Mapplethorpe chases not the Madonna but the whore, Warhol.  Andy is the early spectre that makes Mapplethorpe yearn for art stardom.  He never seems to grab the hem of Andy’s garment, just the idea of him.

There is an inescapable nostalgia to all of this.  Smith gives us poignant vignettes and that helps paint the picture so to speak.  Every bit of grit and glam can’t be written down, but what is here helps you know Patti and Robert as they would want to be known.  It is a worthy biography for both of them.

While I was reading Just Kids, I spent some time in Tompkins Square Park with my friends and all our kids.  I didn’t know it during the squatter’s riots or shooting gallery days, but it was great to imagine Patti and Robert here looking exactly out of place.

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