Understanding Robert Mapplethorpe through Patti Smith

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On Monday the J. Paul Getty Trust and Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced the joint acquisition of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe. The 200 unique artworks, 2000 photographs, 3,500 Polaroids and 120,000 negatives are worth in the neighborhood of $30 million.

In addition to the artworks, Mapplethorpe’s correspondence is included in the acquisition. What will probably be of most interest to history are the documents related to the 1990 ‘obscenity’ trial in Cincinnati, a flashpoint in the era’s culture wars, that stemmed from a posthumous show of Mapplethorpe’s photography that included homoerotic and sadomasochistic images. But pop culture fans may be more interested in Mapplethorpe’s personal correspondence with rocker Patti Smith, whose memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, ‘Just Kids,’ won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction.


Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers and, after that ended, remained intimates -- loftmates, best friends. Smith describes their evolution as artists in tandem, letting us see how Mapplethorpe made art before the iconic photography he’s now known for. She describes a period in early 1968:

Robert was cutting out sideshow freaks from an oversized paperback on Tod Browning. Hermaphrodites, pinheads, and Siamese twins were scattered everywhere. It threw me, for I couldn’t see a connection between these images and Robert’s recent preoccupation with magic and religion. As always, I found ways to keep in step with him through my own drawings and poems. I drew circus characters and told stories about them, of Hagen Waler the nocturnal tightrope walker, Balthazar the Donkey-Faced Boy, and Aratha Kelly with his moonshaped head. Robert had no more explanation of why he was drawn to freaks than I had in creating them.

And later:

Robert sketched installations that he couldn’t realize and I could feel his frustration. He turned his attention to making necklaces, encouraged by Bruce Rudow, who saw commercial potential in them. Robert had always liked making necklaces, first for his mother, then for himself. In Brooklyn, Robert and I had made each other special amulets, which slowly became more elaborate. In room 1017 the top drawer of our bureau was filled with ribbons, string, tiny ivory skulls, and beads of colored glass and silver, gathered for next to nothing at flea markets and Spanish religious stores.

She describes Mapplethorpe’s studio in 1971, with an oval mirror flanked by a black whip on one side and a spray-painted devil’s mask on the other. At that time, he’d begun his pursuit of photography, and Smith’s tale of the events is both anecdotal and revealing:

I was Robert’s first model and he was his second. He began by taking photographs of me incorporating my treasures or his ritual objects, and graduated to nudes and portraits.... He made use of the whole Polaroid pack, the casing for frames, the pull tab, and occasionally even a semi-failure by manipulating the image with emulsion. Because of the price of film he felt obliged to make every shot count. He did not like making mistakes or wasting film, and so developed his quick eye and decisive manner. He was precise and economical, first out of necessity, then out of habit. Observing his swift progress was rewarding, as I felt a part of his process. The creed we developed as artist and model was simple. I trust in you, I trust in myself.

Looking at Smith’s book, David L. Ulin wrote, ‘Their story is their own, of course, but also reflective of anyone who ever moved into some marginal neighborhood to be a poet or a painter, who ever gave over his or her experience to creativity.... If ‘Just Kids’ has a message, however, it’s that bohemia exists within us, that the only imperative of the artist is to create.’

Of course, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe are exceptional artists. And Smith’s immensely personal memoir provides an extraordinary window into Mapplethorpe’s becoming, as well as her own.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image, left: Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait, 1980 Gelatin silver print. Jointly acquired by LACMA and The J. Paul Getty Trust. Partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds from The David Geffen Foundation and The J. Paul Getty Trust. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission. Right: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Photo booth, Forty-second Street, 1969, from the book ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith. Credit: HarperCollins Publishers