February 25, 2011


by Patti Smith
320 pages, Ecco

Review by Maria Bustillos

Those of us d'un certain âge who remember the career of bad boy of the New York art world, Robert Mapplethorpe, and that of his sometime lover and best friend, the poet and singer Patti Smith, are likely to enjoy this memoir very much. It is a touching and affectionate portrait of the Manhattan art scene of the late 60s and early 70s, and of the tenderness of the relationship between the two artists. Just Kids won the 2010 National Book Award.

The difficulties faced by the two, who were just twenty years old when they met so fortuitously in Brooklyn, are lovingly rendered here; poverty, romantic troubles, drug troubles, all the uncertainties faced (then and now) by every broke and ambitious young artist on the make in Manhattan. These things take on a romantic cast viewed forty years on by one who succeeded--and survived. The Chelsea Hotel, Max's Kansas City, the Automat where Allan Ginsberg famously tried to pick up on Smith, mistaking her for a boy: these are the stories one expected to hear. But Smith is more affecting in the everday details of her struggle, as when she slips into the argot of bookscouting; this was one of many ways in which she eked out a precarious living before forming her first band. A 26-volume set of Henry James, picked up for a song, provides just enough dough to pay for the new loft where Mapplethorpe came into his real metier, photography. The tissue guards intact, the etchings crisp. No foxing.

But by the time I'd finished I had altered my original views of the book quite a lot. It didn’t seem as candid or as naive to me as it had seemed at first. There is a great deal of whitewashing that goes on after the fact in anyone’s life, of course. Mapplethorpe’s typically lapsed-Catholic attraction to “dark” things was so common during that time; he aestheticized a lot of subjects that had been taboo in a way that was useful and helpful to many, exploding old fears and furthering the cause of individual freedom. Though it must be said that those of us who were younger found his work really obvious at the time, not especially inspired. One wondered, also, how much of Mapplethorpe’s success was the result of the patronage of a rich lover. How much of that dismissiveness was just taking for granted what in fact cost this artist a great deal to achieve? The story of Mapplethorpe's relationship with his family alone provided me with much new food for thought, and made me feel a bit ashamed of how "easy" I'd thought his work as a kid.

Still, it bears mentioning too that the “decadence” of the 1970s (that was such a catchword that it appeared on the cover of Time, as I recall,) an era of permissiveness of a kind that would be unimaginable today, caused a lot of harm. This is an unfashionable view. But I can't help but conclude now that some of Mapplethorpe's preoccupations were thought to be dark for good reason. So many of my own friends succumbed to AIDS, to drug problems. And so the romanticism and tenderness of Smith's memoir are ill suited in a lot of ways to the realities of the case: in truth, Mapplethorpe suffered for his sins like something out of Bosch. (By this I refer obliquely to the fact that he was raised Catholic, and was even an altar boy.) He died very dreadfully, an early victim of AIDS, and his lover, Sam Wagstaff, died before him ... there was so much grief and pain in those days. So this book left me with a very melancholy feeling, both sweet and sad, both for what is said therein and what is not.

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