whitehot | Book Review: Patti Smith, Just Kids
“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”
Patti Smith’s latest book, Just Kids is a bestselling memoir about her complicated but enduring relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from their poverty engulfed beginning to Robert’s premature death in 1989. In two hundred and seventy nine pages Smith pulls us vividly into the lives of these two iconic figures, delving intimately into one of the most intriguing artistic relationships in contemporary art history. Just Kids is a captivating read, full of Smith’s voluptuous and imaginative prose. Hooking you in the forward with, “I was asleep when he died,” she never lets you waver until the last words of the epilogue have been read; “My last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger.” It’s a book that by default of subject cannot help but be provocative, as it describes the ever-fascinating environment that was New York City during the 1970s.
As a performer, visual artist, poet, writer, musician and appropriator, Patti Smith tackles the creative world she grew up within from a perspective that brings together a wide array of personalities. She also succeeds in avoiding the dangerous territory of writing an exclusive book about artists for artists. Instead, hers is a memoir about a time, a place, and the minds that fueled it. Just Kids is an irrefutably important book, however, not because of the details it reveals about Mapplethorpe or the now famous celebrities who float in and out of its pages. Instead, its importance rests in the story Patti Smith tells of herself.
At sixteen, Smith recollects, “I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day…I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker.” Her ambition is prescient, and though I fear many will interpret Just Kids as a secondhand account of Mapplethrope’s rise to stardom, it is truly about their story. “Before Robert died,” Smith states in her acknowledgements, “I promised him that I would one day write our story,” and Just Kids is a generous manifestation of that promise. The story belongs to Mapplethorpe and Smith, but the book is unmistakably narrated in Patti’s voice. Her narration acts as a blending tool between the universal and the specific aspects of their personal history. She draws us into her tale of youthful love, to which we can all relate, while also lingering on the details of two artists emerging onto the New York art scene during a time of intense creativity. She comes from that generation of artists and writers—like so many of my generation’s professors and mentors—who specialized in making the personal feel universal.
Hers is the voice of a generation that grasped and articulated for us the deeper truths hidden within the details of a particular personal story. Her tone lacks the cynicism and fear that my generation too often to speaks with, as she describes feelings of love, loss, confusion, revelation, ambition, frustration, fear, jealously. There is nothing “objective” about her recollections of their youth, and she writes instead what she remembers, felt, and believed at the time. Just Kids drips with an honest sentimentality that we have since been trained to believe is cliché, too personal, and even dangerous—you could argue that her book is written in the aesthetic of another decade. In a recent conversation at Cooper Union between Smith and the author Jonathan Lethem, she explained a rule she created for herself during the process of writing Just Kids. “No matter what I remembered,” Smith explained, “if I couldn’t see what I was writing as a little movie then I took it away.” Smith wanted the reader to enter the book “just like they were reading a movie.” There is little doubt that the book is made up of vibrant images disguised as words. Smith writes and therefore reads like a liberating artist, setting words free to illuminate images in our minds.
“Robert and I hardly fought, but we would bicker like children.” Many of the sentiments Smith carefully expresses throughout the book extend beyond the boundaries of character or generation. The literary critic Adam Gopnik once wrote that “children are radically themselves and entirely of their kind,” and Smith describes the unique nature of this relationship while acknowledging they were not the first or last of young lovers. We all believe that our stories are extraordinary and unique, when in fact they are not. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that they are not makes us feel less alone. “I felt disconnected from all that was outside the world that Robert and I had created between us,” Smith recalls, evoking that cocoon-like feeling young lovers create as they protect each other from reality and the world outside.
In the case of Smith and Mapplethorpe, while we can relate strongly with certain aspects of their relationship, others keep us timelessly horrified, baffled, and astonished. Mapplethorpe’s tormented path to homosexuality early in their relationship, Smith’s ultimate acceptance and understanding, and the continuation of their romantic love afterward perpetually leaves us outside the realm of comprehension—“who can know the heart of youth by youth itself?” Patti asks. “There was nothing in our relationship that had prepared me for such a revelation. All of the signs that he had obliquely imparted I had interpreted as the evolution of his art. Not of his self.” The dichotomy between the familiar and the particular of their relationship seems to describe what lies at the root of all human stories. There is something so endearing about Smith as she captures these small truths that whether we like her or Mapplethorpe or their artwork becomes irrelevant. There is more to be learned and more offered in this book than our approval or damnation. It might not be a relationship we understand, that we could happily endure, but regardless the story transcends itself into an inspiring tale of terrifying poverty and enviable success. “We promised that we’d never leave one another again, until we both knew we were ready to stand on our own. And this vow, through everything we were yet to go through, we kept.”
Apart from Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship, Just Kids is filled with anecdotal stories—entertaining, romantic, and sad—about the numerous artistic personalities who lived in or frequented the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, or the popular restaurant El Quixote. Throughout Just Kids, the stories related and the personalities observed provide context for the artwork, giving insight into how artists were thinking and working during that time in New York City. Despite our historical idealization of Max’s Kansas City, Warhol’s roundtable, and the Chelsea Hotel, seeing them as a hotbed of creativity, the world Patti describes feels just as political, hierarchical, and arbitrary as the art world we know today. Similarly, it makes it no less interesting and entertaining. It is through the couples various social circles that we sense Patti’s maverick personality, so oblivious and nonchalant to things deemed important, and Mapplethorpe’s all consuming ambition to be known. Into Just Kids Smith weaves a hilarious story of Allen Ginsberg buying a starving Patti Smith a Automat meal, only to reveal to her halfway through her cheese-and-lettuce-sandwich that he had mistaken her for a “very pretty boy.” She describes her relationship with the handsome playwright Sam Shepard, who she initially believed to be a drummer for the band the Holy Modal Rounders named Slim Shadow. “Slim was a good talker…he had an infectious laugh and was rugged, smart, and intuitive.” She describes how Robert met the great philanthropist and former curator Sam Wagstaff, the man who was to become “his lover, his patron, and his lifelong friend.” The insight these anecdotes provide, however, depends upon Patti and Robert’s conflicting opinions of one another’s companions. Their interest in and dislike of different people—Robert’s infatuation with Warhol contrasting with Patti’s tepid feelings about Andy’s artwork, or Patti’s literary collaboration with Shepard in sprite of Robert’s distrust of Sam’s unruly character—paints such celebrated creative icons in an unusually dimensional light.
We remember, discuss, and learn from Smith and Mapplethorpe primarily because of their artwork, but their story has a different value. It can attempt to show the evolution, if we care to see it, behind their artwork. Their narrative captures within it an explanation of their ideology and the aesthetic they themselves, and more widely their generation, came to embody. Together they reveal how different artistic strategies can lead equally toward success, and they irrefutably establish, Smith with her attitude and Mapplethorpe through his content, that there are numerous ways to challenge the art establishment. Wandering into the Chelsea Hotel, I was surprised to find that it still feels like a mythic place. The lobby exudes warmth as though extending an invitation to sink down into a slightly dingy armchair. Looking around with curiosity and imagining the past, I wondered if my generation will experience the kind of community Smith so vividly describes throughout her book.
Speaking at Cooper Union this May, Patti Smith warned her audience, “it’s much harder in New York City now, almost impossible, to do what we did back then…New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…you have to find the new place because New York City has been taken away from you…It’s still a great city, but it has closed itself off to the poor and creative burgeoning society. So my advice is, find a new city.” Though these words crush the attitude of defiance she instills in Just Kids, perhaps Patti Smith does not realize that our job as the “new guard” is to continue her fight. Hopefully, at the very least, her memoir will impregnate the minds of a new generation of artists with a deep knowledge of an iconic, inspirational, and surprising artist. Patti Smith shouldn’t be omitted from the canon, and it’s our job to see that she isn’t.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief