Patti Smith moved to New York and soon met photographer and lost boy Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them began an unlikely romance marked by innocence and enthusiasm for life and art. The two found in each other their muse to create art in its various forms. Because the two began their journey to becoming artist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the two rubbed elbows with some of the most famous faces and voices of the time. While Smith’s memoir is partly a love story to Mapplethorpe, it is also partly a love story to the City of New York. The overall outcome, however, is the making of an extremely talented artist.
In the interest of full disclosure, I gave serious consideration to not reviewing this book. It’s not that I didn’t like it–I did–but I felt overwhelmed about how to even begin reviewing Smith’s poetic, lovely memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe and her awakening as an artist. I’m still not sure that I’m going to be able to do the book justice, but in the interest of reviewing nearly everything I read, I’m going to try.
Smith’s imagination is nearly limitless, and she demonstrates its powers again and again in this memoir. When she moved to New York in 1967, she wasn’t even 21 but had already suffered a great deal personally, having given up a baby for adoption. She was also demonstrating a natural proclivity for the arts, specifically with regard to reading, writing, and drawing. When she met Mapplethorpe one afternoon, it is clear that there was an instant connection. Despite the fact that the two had extremely different personal styles and outlooks on life, something between them clicked.
It helps that Smith is a gifted writer, and her detailed journals from the time period in question have helped her craft a rich, satisfying memoir. Smith succeeds in many aspects of this book, but she is most successful in describing their love affair: it is at times very tender and also painful. It is this relationship that drives the book: Smith’s naivete regarding Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality is both believable and hard to read about, but her unflinching support of him is amazing.
This is a book on becoming an artist, to be sure. The transformation from obscurity to stardom without compromise is well-traveled in the literary world, but Smith’s child-like innocence gives this story a refreshing feel to it. Despite being about the quest for art and success, the story is also largely universal: a struggle to survive while also struggling to figure out who you are within the context of the larger world.
Recommended for fans of Smith’s music especially, this book will also resonate with those who hold a fascination for the tumultuous 60s and 70s.
Just Kids by Patti Smith. Ecco: 2010. Library copy.