Patti Smith: Camera Solo
October 21 – February 19
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, (860) 278-2670, thewadsworth.org.
Rock-and-roll-band-fronting poet Patti Smith, who turns 65 at the end of the year, has been working harder and more busily than ever before, though not solely in the realm of music.
Smith's fairy-tale-like memoir Just Kids, about her tender relationship with nascent photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their formative years seeking identities as artists, won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction. Reportedly she is working on a feature-film adaptation of Just Kids, a follow-up memoir, a mystery novel, more poetry, and a new album of music.
Meanwhile, a retrospective collection of songs picked by Smith, titled Outside Society, was released in August. Her 1975 debut album Horses was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2009.
Also, Smith appears as herself in Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme (2010) and is the subject of Patti Smith: Dream of Life, a documentary by Steven Sebring that was 11 years in the making. To celebrate the opening of her show, Smith performs in Hartford at the Atheneum on Oct. 20.
And in James Crump's documentary Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007), hers is the lone voice speaking fondly of both men. Their intertwined lives and careers were linked with Smith's in 1970s New York City. Despite their deaths from AIDS-related causes in the late 1980s, her bond to them has not broken. Keeping their memories alive has seemingly become sacred to her.
Mapplethorpe became notorious for homoerotic pictures (some of which were included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling solo exhibition with a 1989 stopover at the Wadsworth Atheneum). But who was Wagstaff?
From 1961 to 1968, Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., was a national-attention-getting curator at the Atheneum where he organized landmark exhibitions of contemporary painting and sculpture. In 1970 he met Mapplethorpe, quickly becoming his mentor and promoter, lover and companion. Already Wagstaff was an advocate for photography as an art form (which he proclaimed as "the least decorative of all the arts," admitting, "they don't hold the wall terribly well"), and collecting became his consuming mania.
What Wagstaff greedily amassed on thrift-shopping ventures with Mapplethorpe and Smith she studied with avid curiosity. Much later, in 1984, Wagstaff was the Atheneum's guest curator for Mapplethorpe's MATRIX show of floral still-lifes. That year he sold his collection of thousands of photographic masterpieces to Getty for an estimated $5 million, a bargain-basement price by today's market.
Moreover, without the men's tutelage, as well as being a model for Mapplethorpe's earliest image-making, would Smith have channeled some of her creative impulses in the last decade toward black-and-white photography? Yes and no.
At a 2008 press conference launching an exhibition of her Polaroid photographs at Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris, Smith said, "I am not a photographer. ... The immediacy of the [Polaroid instant] process was a relief from the long, involved process of drawing, recording or writing a poem," particularly while grieving for her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and brother Todd, who both died in 1994.
So photography served as self-consolation, later a means of making souvenirs of her travels, which included reverent pilgrimages to boneyards associated with artists, notably of her heroes William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud andWalt Whitman.
Since 2002 she's been using an Automatic 250 Land Camera. The exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum features nearly 70 images made since then to the present (including those mentioned above).
Additionally, it includes a new print of her 1969 photograph of Mapplethorpe's skull-ringed fingers and hands, display cases of cherished "relics" that once belonged to Mapplethorpe and her late father, as well as two installations: a three-dimensional homage to Rimbaud and a tribute to surrealist poet René Daumal, the latter a film collaboration with lensman Jem Cohen.
There are self-portraits and portraits of Smith's two children and artist friends, notably her favorite fashion designer, Ann Demeulemeester. There are urban and country landscapes, seascapes and hushed interiors, absent human presence excepting her eye. Visions of emptiness, of "forsaken" or stilled objects abound: Herman Hesse's typewriter. The beds of Jim Carroll, Victor Hugo, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, and architect Carlo Mollino. Roberto Bolaño's chair. Woolf's cane. Rudolf Nureyev's dancing slippers. Her father's coffee cup. Rimbaud's fork and spoon. And items she inherited from Mapplethorpe: monogrammed house slippers and a cross.
What resonates from the cool, silvery tones of Smith's photographs are themes of solitude and silence, suffering and rest; creation and obliteration; time past, time lost and eternity.
In sum, Camera Solo promises to be a serene, seraphic dialogue between Smith and her angels.