Patti Smith at MoMA (image via @museummodernart

On December 19th of last year, Patti Smith and Michael Stipe gave a “walk-in performance” in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art to celebrate the centennial of Jean Genet — poet, playwright, novelist, radical leftist, hustler and thief.

It was also the final day of the uprising in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, which started three days earlier when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire and burned to death to protest the confiscation of his merchandize by the police.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation, a seemingly random and inexplicable act, was the flashpoint that begat a year of cascading events — from the Arab Spring to the austerity protests in Europe and the Occupy movements in the US.

The timing of the performance and the Tunisia riots were, of course, purely a coincidence.

On December 19th of this year, alone with her guitar, Patti Smith returned to the same place — now occupied by an enormous obelisk holding aloft Sanja Iveković’s golden, hugely pregnant “Lady Rosa of Luxembourg” — to mark Genet’s 101st birthday.

Between last year’s performance and now, the long-entrenched and purportedly untouchable governments of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have been left in the dust. This too, of course, was a coincidence.

Iveković’s interventionist anti-memorial, installed as the centerpiece of the Croatian artist’s MoMA retrospective, Sweet Violence, is dedicated to the Marxist humanist Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered by German reactionaries in 1919. The glittering, pregnant, repurposed figure of Nike, more than 70 feet above the floor, offset by Smith’s lanky, black-suited, scraggly-stately presence, lent an unexpected, loopy dignity to the chasmic void at the museum’s core. Very unexpected.

Smith recounted the absurd circumstances of Genet’s death (already in the terminal stages of throat cancer, he was refused entry to his usual cheap Paris hotel, the Rubens, and found lodging in the unfamiliar Jack Hotel, where he apparently missed a bathroom step, hit his head and died).

She read from Genet’s work and sang “Southern Cross” and Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” (in soulful a cappella, because she didn’t know the chords). She marveled at the swiftness of change sweeping the globe, of which “the Occupy movement is only one movement” of many, and she recited “People Have the Power” and sang “My Blakean Year.”

Just beyond the edge of the quietly attentive crowd, you could wander through galleries full of editions by the 1960s anti-art group, Fluxus (whose manifesto, written by ringleader George Maciunas in 1963, begins “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual’, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art…”).

Or you could admire the “portable frescos” (if you consider the 1,000-pound “Agrarian Leader Zapata” portable), rife with images of anti-colonialism and class warfare, that Diego Rivera made for his solo turn at MoMA in 1931. (Be sure to note the archival letters and photos from his aborted mural for Rockefeller Center, which was chipped off when he wouldn’t consider Nelson A. Rockefeller’s request to substitute a portrait of Lenin with a more “anonymous” face.) Or you could witness Harun Farocki’s equivalencies of military maneuvers and video games in his exhibition, Images of War (at a Distance).

Quite a revolutionary lineup of for the World HQ of High Modernism. And that too is a coincidence.

You could scoff that Diego Rivera and Fluxus are dimmed by time, their fire-breathing tactics sicklied over and neutered by the patina of history. But a museum (from the Greek mouseion) is the “seat of the Muses,” and these objects are now present and available. If we take notice of them, they become as inextricably a part of our reality as Harun Farocki and Sanja Iveković and Patti Smith.

The refrain of “My Blakean Year” goes “One road is paved in gold / One road is just a road.”

It’s the end of 2011. Patti Smith, as she announced to the crowd, will be 65 on December 30th, and she’s “ready for more —  the great stuff and the shit.”

Upstairs, on the sixth floor, Willem de Kooning is 107, yet his paintings are the most of-the-moment of any around: colossal, chaotic, rough-hewn, spontaneous, accident-prone, handmade, offensive, glorious, unfinished, never finished. As Smith sings in “Blakean Year,” these works, from the first to the last, are “so disposed / Toward a mission yet unclear.”

Happy Birthday, Patti Smith, and Happy New Year.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

One reply on “Patti Smith, MoMA and a Revolutionary Year”

  1. Thank you, Thomas Micchelli! It has been an amazing year, as your thoughtful piece here touches on some of the truly unusual events. There is something in the air. And so fitting, that you wrap this story around Patti Smith & MoMA, two of life’s most spirited wonders.

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