March 13, 2010 12:28 am

‘Music and art to die for’

 
Patti Smith

Patti Smith photographed on top of the Soho News building, New York, in 1974

Just Kids
By Patti Smith
Bloomsbury £18.99, 304 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19

Patti Smith’s Horses and the Remaking of Rock ’n’ Roll
By Mark Paytress
Portrait £9.99, 260 pages
FT Bookshop price: £6.39

Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World
By Gary Indiana
Basic Books £12.99, 192 pages

The Black Book
By Robert Mapplethorpe
Schirmer Mosel Verlag £29.95, 108 pages

It snowed in New York on the Christmas night of 1969. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe walked to Times Square to witness the latest cultural happening: a bold white billboard proclaiming “War is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” The couple – lovers, artistic collaborators, best friends – glanced at each other. Mapplethorpe was impressed, not so much with the sentiment but with the fact that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had made their stand on the city’s fabled 42nd Street, a mainstream venue for cheesy musicals but not known for its subversive missives of peace. “For me, it was the message,” recalls Smith in Just Kids, her tender memoir of their relationship. “For Robert, the medium.”

The difference in outlook, which would prove crucial to the gradual untangling of their liaison, was momentarily forgotten as Smith and Mapplethorpe exchanged presents. He had made her a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary; she gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather. “We felt ready for the seventies,” writes Smith, and she recounts Mapplethorpe’s confident response: “It’s our decade.”

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Peter Aspden

And so it was. Near the end of it, the two of them were walking together again when they heard Smith’s new hit single, “Because the Night”, blaring on a radio. “Patti,” drawled Mapplethorpe, “you got famous before me.” But the young photographer was already making his mark in the city’s artistic circles, celebrating the recent acquisition of a Hasselblad camera with his stark documentation of the local S&M scene. The images were shocking, although Mapplethorpe resisted the description. “I don’t like that particular word ... I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before ... I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.”

Smith and Mapplethorpe were blessed with good timing. From the beginning of their friendship, their search for “the unexpected” and for the shrill sensations of bohemian life was amply catered for in a society living on the brink of psychic breakdown. There cannot have been many wilder decades than the 1970s, and they found their perfect (un)spiritual home in New York’s riven polity. There was the art punk of Max’s Kansas City and the shimmering promiscuity of Studio 54; peacenik marches and the Son of Sam; pet rocks, smiley faces, the black-out. It all made fertile ground for art, music, and poetry.

Just Kids is a beautifully written evocation of the time, and one of several recent books that re-evaluate the artistic sensibility of the 1970s. It’s hard not to feel a curious nostalgia as Smith narrates her shamelessly romantic account of life with Mapplethorpe. Her greatest achievement is to evoke innocence in an age we identify with sinful extremes. This may be disingenuousness on her part: her accounts of sexual encounters (including Mapplethorpe’s street hustling) are discreet; she didn’t take drugs; friendliness abounds wherever the couple lay their wasted frames. But her writing, candid and joyous, dispels cynicism.

Slap bang in the middle of the decade, Patti Smith made her artful debut album Horses, a pioneering mix of lowlife poetry and heavy riffs that established her reputation. Not the least startling aspect of the record was its cover, shot, naturally, by Mapplethorpe. It is the kind of image we would today call “iconic” but its genesis was casual: “The only thing I promised Robert was that I would wear a clean shirt with no stains on it,” Smith recalls. The session was brief and to the point. “I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That is all.” Another difference in outlook: Mapplethorpe obsessed with technique, Smith with attitude.

In Mark Paytress’s breathy book Patti Smith’s Horses and the Remaking of Rock ’n’ Roll, reissued later this year, the album Horses and its striking sleeve are credited with being “the first shot in a new age of semiotic guerrilla warfare”, giving “advance notice of seismic shifts in the new cultural order, from casual to committed, colour to monochrome, apathy to action”. Paytress’s thesis is a familiar one: that the rock world had become so self-important and bloated by the middle of the 1970s that it required some kind of formal revolution to enable it to re-find its roots. But as he acknowledges, Smith was to punk’s rebellion what Alexander Kerensky’s political reforms were to the Russian revolution: too little, too late. Her studied poses and poetic embellishments may have given the Eagles a thing or two to think about but they were swiftly rendered irrelevant by the British version of punk: pallid, pock-marked, inarticulate, ugly.

With the exception of the single “Because the Night”, Smith never hit the heights of Horses again. Her moment in the pop spotlight was brief. Yet in artistic terms, she and Mapplethorpe continued to rise onward and upward. The singer swiftly identified the most important distinction between them: while she was happy to work in obscurity, fuelled by her hero-worship of such counter-culture figures as Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, Mapplethorpe was much more ambitious, regarding the worldlier Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol as guiding lights. “We were a curious mix of Funny Face and Faust,” writes Smith, she dreaming girlishly of Audrey Hepburn and he shrewdly calculating how much his soul, not to mention his body, were worth.

The differences were at their starkest when Mapplethorpe became obsessed with entering the coterie of the New York art scene’s emperor, Warhol, who “seemed to both excite and paralyse” his latest acolyte. He began to dart between the points of Warhol’s “Bermuda Triangle”, Brownies, Max’s Kansas City and the Factory, hoping to be accepted into the artist’s inner circle. Smith accompanied him, uninterested and patient. It’s not as if Warhol was ever present – he had withdrawn from most of his social activities following the attempt on his life in 1968 – but his shadow, or rather his “phantom” as Smith prefers it, continued to loom large on the city’s artistic landscape. The nature of Warhol’s legacy is spelled out in Gary Indiana’s pithy account, focusing on the artist’s enduring masterpieces, the “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings, which rocked an unsuspecting art world in the summer of 1962. Their appearance at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, ranged evenly as in a supermarket, drew more ridicule than praise. A nearby gallery filled its windows with Campbell’s soup and offered “the real thing for only 33 cents a can”. Far from distressed, Warhol joined in the fun. He took a photographer to the supermarket and had his picture taken signing the cans. The photograph was wired round the world.

For Indiana, the “Soup Can” series “condensed, like canned soup, what pop art had been seeking. It reflected the unanticipated effects of technological changes on the ways Americans lived after the second world war – changes in mores and values created by accelerated consumerism”. The “Soup Cans” were stinging rebukes on the dull conformism of the previous decade. They were “works of obdurate stupidity radiating the aptness of genius”. At the centre of their creation was the enigmatic cool of their creator. Warhol’s personality, vapid, ironic, passive, was as strong a statement of his time as his works. You had to search hard but there was even an element of personal biography in his pioneering work: Warhol had had to eat Campbell’s soup for lunch every day “throughout 20 years of grinding poverty”, and was taking obscure revenge on the innocent foodstuff.

Soon after what was, at the very least, a coup de théâtre, and arguably the most important art event of the second half of the 20th century, Warhol began to expand his horizons. The sheer volume of work he created led him to build a pseudo-industrial framework, apeing the practices of Renaissance workshops. His “preternatural” sense of self-control attracted followers who gravitated towards him as they would to a “high priest or magically endowed parent who could impart importance and a sense of direction to their inner chaos”.

One of those followers, Valerie Solanas, attempted to assassinate the artist in 1968, just two days before the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It was among the many death-knells for the dreamy decade. The Warhol who emerged in the 1970s was changed: more cautious, unsurprisingly, but also more cynical. He was quick to grasp that the profound changes demanded of American society were not going to happen; and instead of being part of the counter-culture, his work “became the mirror of an unameliorated capitalist ethos, at ease with portrait commissions from the Shah of Iran and taped reflections of Imelda Marcos. Making the world safe for Andy Warhol involved making Andy Warhol safe for the world”.

Business art was born, or at least reborn, on a massive scale. This was the universe – moneyed, disillusioned, anti-climactic – that so attracted Mapplethorpe. In seeking to make his own mark on “the scene”, he turned to the extreme practices of the homosexual lifestyle he had begun to embrace. That was never going to chime with the dominant tone of the Warhol scene and Mapplethorpe further rummaged, as Smith puts it, into “areas of dark human consent, [making] them into art”.

His photographs would eventually create the kind of controversy that would make the storm-in-a-soup-can of the previous decade pale by comparison. In twinning explicit gay imagery with formal beauty, he transgressed just about every taboo that middle America, a land that had already devoured Warhol, had to offer. The new edition of Mapplethorpe’s 1986 The Black Book, a collection of erotic, black-and-white portraits of nude black men, already seems less shocking to us than it did on its original release.

Since Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989 from an HIV-related infection, many of the censorship issues that surrounded his work have been resolved, or at least been explicitly addressed in the galleries and museums that house it. He has, inevitably, become highly collectable, though nowhere near as collectable as Warhol, contemporary art’s patron and mentor.

Smith, whose edgy lifestyle in the 1970s always belied a non-confontational softness, enters the second decade of the 21st century in splendid form, inventing a new aesthetic style – maternal boho-punk – as she reminds audiences to brush their teeth twice a day and stay hydrated.

She, too, has been co-opted into the mainstream, curating festivals, winning prestigious medals and becoming, in a phrase she would surely hate, something of a national treasure. The greatest winner in all this looking back is surely the 1970s. The decade that gave us unemployment, strikes and terrorism is suddenly looking more palatable to the decade that lost track of its finances. Its music and art, at least, were to die for.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

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