Patti Smith, “Self Portraits Alexandria Egypt” (2009) (Courtesy, the artist and Robert Miller Gallery)

The last time I wrote about the artist, poet, musician and performance artist (i.e. woman of many trades) Patti Smith was to complain about the fact that I’d never heard of her. My rant had something to do with the fact that I spent five years at two different art schools and her name never came up — not once. When we studied Robert Mapplethorpe, his photographs and slightly tragic life, her name was never mentioned in connection with any part of Mapplethorpe’s story. It was this kind of institutionalized blindness to Smith’s life, artwork and relevance in the 1970s art scene that I found frustrating, typical and unnecessary. To say that Smith continues to be overlooked, however, is untrue. Over the past two years Smith’s name, along with her artwork, writing, and music, has entered into the mainstream, public consciousness.

At the age of sixty-five, which she turned at the Bowery Ballroom days ago in front of her usual crowd of fans at a sold out, end of the year show, Patti Smith has become a kind of art celebrity. Her memoir Just Kids, about her early life, her relationship with Mapplethorpe and their first years of success as artists in the 1970s, was published in January 2010, and immediately became a great hit. The book went on to win the National Book Award, and become a New York Times bestseller. Just Kids is undeniably what brought Smith to the attention of a whole generation of artists born after her career was well on its way. It alone created a new interest in her old work, and it has given her new work more relevance. Following her appearances over the past year, it’s ironic that Patti Smith herself hasn’t changed, she is doing what she has always done — fourteen years of shows at the Bowery Ballroom every New Years Eve — but we are now more aware of her appearances, opinions and artwork.

Patti Smith performing at the 92nd Street Y with Sam Shepard and Lenny Kaye in February 2011. (photo by Joyce Culver for 92Y)

Patti Smith, who is known for being an accessible New York staple, has been on everyone’s radar this past year. I’ve seen her at openings on a Thursday night in Chelsea, wearing her leather boots, blue jeans and black blazer, I saw her at the 92nd Street Y in February with Sam Shepard and Lenny Kaye, and she still shows her drawings, photographs and installations at the Robert Miller Gallery where she has been represented since 1978.

Smith currently has a solo show of photographs titled Camera Solo at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, her book Woolgathering has been reissued and published by New Directions, and her first greatest hits album, Outside Society, was released in August. Smith is currently collaborating with acclaimed screenwriter John Logan on the screenplay for the future movie of Just Kids. It’s inevitable that when the film is made Patti Smith’s image will become as familiar to people as Mapplethorpe’s is to photographers. Patti Smith will then officially become the kind of rock star she has always been.

The body of work Smith has created to date, spanning over forty years, is inspiring to young artists and writers like myself. She’s a bold woman with great stories, and her career has been driven by her great gift for performance. Smith is funny, humble, talented and possesses a drawling voice that can make you believe anything. Her artwork is interesting, and her writing provocative, but I love Patti Smith because she’s the best performance artist I’ve ever seen.

An art history professor of mine once identified a common pattern for female artists, saying that they are only granted cultural importance late in life, ironically the opposite of all other women in our society who are prized for their youth and beauty. It is true that while we have countless young, male art stars around whom the art world flocks (and the occasional female star), artists like Patti Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marina Abramović and so many others, have to wait until the end of their careers before they are finally seen as culturally relevant or influential. Disappointing as this is, it does not change the fact that great women are always worth respecting and rediscovering, and as Patti Smith has proven over the past year, she deserves every last bit of her latent fame.

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3 replies on “Patti Smith Turns 65”

  1. “Over the past two years Smith’s name, along with her artwork, writing, and music, has entered into the mainstream, public consciousness.” 
    “…Patti Smith has become a kind of art celebrity.”

    I think Patti Smith is as about as “mainstream” as she’ll ever be, which isn’t a lot but maybe a bit more than usual.  What I think you’re applauding is her accaptence into the “art world,” which is a bit different.  Fans of rock and roll and (mostly male) rock critics have known for years how great she is.  The art world tends to ignore rock musicians (too bourgeois?  too kitschy?  too popular?) until they do something else.  A loud guitar and a good song isn’t enough I guess.  

    I don’t mean to disparage Smith’s recent successes.  I love her, and look forward to reading “Just Kids.”  But if you’re worried that you didn’t hear about her in art school, then I would suggest that there’s a whole classification of artists that you should be checking out, of which she is only the tip of the iceberg. 

  2. I agree, I think she is about as mainstream as she will ever be, but I do think the next couple of years will make her into a household name for people not into art or music, and I think the movie of Just Kids could make her into a kind of icon; rebel, artist, activist, musician, etc. It will be interesting to follow, if nothing else!

    She has been a punk icon for a long time, and has never been seen as an artist first and foremost, though reading Just Kids proves she was an artist, drawing alongside Mapplethorpe for years, long before she found words or a guitar. I think part of my point was that she has been a familiar face in the art world too for a long time now, just not one people talked about. I also think even for the musicians that knew her, most of them tend to be a bit older, born in the 70s perhaps, and 80s children know her less. Or so I have found. 

    Most of my peers and I were clueless of her and a bit angry about it. That women artists, and certain artists in general for that matter, get overlooked in art school is no secret, so that’s perhaps what’s upsetting. As an advocate for the importance of education I think it’s important not to accept exclusions, but to point them out and challenge them. I agree also that there are a whole bunch of excluded artists to discover.

    Enjoy reading Just Kids!

  3. Paris 2008 ou 2009, bref, il y a peu, La Fondation Cartier à Paris ( à recu en ses murs une super exposition d’oeuvres de Patti Smith, Un face d’elle que l’on connait moins voir pas du tout.
    Video, dessins, mise en scène d’objet, poèmes  etc…
    Vraiment très intéressante expo, j’ai adoré me poser confortablement  dans les canapés de la Fondation Cartier pour découvrir le “monde” de Patti Smith. Indescriptible et géniale !!! 

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