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Patti Smith Turns 65

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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