Patti Smith Remembers Robert Mapplethorpe in Special Getty Center Performances

Patti Smith - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Patti Smith - Getty - H 2016

With poems, letters, songs and reminiscences, the singer-songwriter paid tribute to her late friend and lover with two intimate shows.  

As the singer-songwriter Patti Smith shared one of two special April 30 shows at the Getty Center in Los Angeles devoted to her late friend Robert Mapplethorpe, there’s a 19th century daguerreotype on exhibit now at the museum that’s worth searching out despite its small size. Its significance isn’t in its subject — an American girl in a dark dress — but in its meaning to three remarkable people whose lives and careers were intertwined in the 1970s: Smith herself; her one-time lover Mapplethorpe; and in turn his lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff.

Part of the recently opened exhibit “The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs,” the image was the very first one that Wagstaff ever acquired, the seed of what would become one of America’s great photography collections. Mapplethorpe —  the revolutionary photographer known for his bold black-and-white still-lifes and his fetishized portraits of members of New York’s gay sexual underground — had encouraged Wagstaff to collect. In so doing, Mapplethorpe got a front-row seat to look at and be inspired by some of the most influential imagery of the 19th and 20th centuries, works by the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Nadar, Man Ray and Dorothea Lange. According to Smith, Mapplethorpe — the subject of his own exhibit right now, “The Perfect Medium,” a two-museum show running through July 31 at the Getty and at LACMA — liked it because he knew that Smith, one of his lovers before he met Wagstaff, would like it. And Smith did. She hadn’t seen it for years, though, until she toured the Getty’s Wagstaff show in the last few weeks and re-encountered the girl in the photo in a glass case.

As Smith told the audience, “I sort of remembered what it looked like, but I hadn’t seen it in decades. I used to do drawings of this little girl and make up stories about her and her name. I mean, I made up her name: Susan Graves. I never thought I would see her again. If you go and look at it, tell her I said hi.”

AMERICAN GIRL: 19th Century daguerreotype on display at the Getty Center's "The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs."  (Photo: Courtesy of the Getty)

Smith’s delight at finding something she thought may have gone missing stood out in an evening that centered on loss. Wagstaff, whose photo collection was acquired by the Getty in 1984, died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications. He was 65. Two years later, the AIDS epidemic claimed Mapplethorpe, at 42, as well. In her 90-minute performance, the singer — famed for her 1975 debut album Horses, which featured a now-iconic portrait shot by Mapplethorpe — reminisced not just about the two men but also about her own youth and the experience of living in New York City in the ’60s and ’70s. (Noticeably different between the Patti Smith of the '70s and the Patti Smith of today is her hair: Once cut short and jagged in punky androgynous fashion, it’s now long and flowing and grey, giving her a softened appearance.)

As she recounted in Just Kids, her 2010 memoir documenting her relationship with Mapplethorpe — from which she read excerpts during the show — she and the photographer met by chance in 1967 when they both were 20. On the first night they spent together, read Smith, “Robert slid two large black portfolios from beneath his bed. We sat on the floor and he showed me his work — delicate drawings, many resulting from his visionary experiences while on LSD. ... As dawn approached we fell asleep together, the floor covered with his drawings.” Some of those very drawings, she noted, are on view as part of the show at LACMA.

Amid recollections of $160-a-month Brooklyn apartments, meeting the likes of Salvador Dali and William Burroughs at the Chelsea Hotel, listening to the same records (Joan Baez, Blonde on Blonde, Tim Harden) over and over again because they didn’t have money to buy new ones (“This was before credit cards and affluence,” she quipped) and wearing their beatnik sandals, love beads, scarves and sheepskin vests, Smith sang a half-dozen songs (accompanied by Tony Shanahan, her longtime bass and piano player), many with connections to her relationships with Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff. She memorialized the latter when she wrote “Paths That Cross,” which later appeared on her 1988 album Dream of Life. “Paths that cross will cross again,” goes the refrain. Said Smith, “Though Robert was grateful for the song, I knew one day I might seek out these same words for myself.”

She also sang her hit 1978 song “Because the Night,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen, recalling that Mapplethorpe was the first to hear her recording outside the studio and remembering the night when the two walked through the streets of Manhattan hearing the song blast out of stores across town. He told her in a voice of “admiration without envy ... ‘Patti, you got famous before me.’”

A third song, “My Blakean Year,” resonates for her, as Smith shared with the crowd, because of the love she and Mapplethorpe had early on for the works of William Blake. She loved the way he mixed images and words; he was taken with the artist’s color palette.

Blake also was an inspiration for both of them in their early years of struggling, given that the English artist and writer labored on throughout his career often bereft of recognition. Neither Smith — whose newest autobiographical book, M Train, came out last year — nor Mapplethorpe — the subject of both a new documentary on HBO, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, and a new book, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive — are in danger of that happening.

Beyond all the memories, she also gave the sense that she feels perhaps her friend is still there with her in some ways. She’s now a grandmother. And when she noted that her grandson Frederick was born on Mapplethorpe’s birthday, Nov. 4, she couldn’t help smiling.