Mapplethorpe’s Muses - Patti Smith

Find out more about the tender link that bound the photographer to his first lover and friend to the end
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Robert Mapplethorpe: Patti Smith, 1987. (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc. This image appeared on the cover of Smith's 1988 album, Dream of Life
Robert Mapplethorpe: Patti Smith, 1987. (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc. This image appeared on the cover of Smith's 1988 album, Dream of Life

Some people in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs found little fame beyond the notoriety conferred on them by appearing in his picture.  With Patti Smith, the reverse is true. The singer and songwriter reached quite a wide audience with her critically acclaimed debut album, Horses, in 1975, and, in so doing, introduced many music lovers to Mapplethorpe’s work; he shot the cover image for that album, as well as subsequent Smith LPs, such as her 1979 release, Wave, and even her 'comeback' album 1988’s Dream of Life. This all seems a lieftime ago but we're happily reminded of those days when we look at the images from all these shoots in our new Robert Mapplethorpe monograph.

But Smith and Mapplethorpe were more than simple collaborators. As our new book explains, Mapplethorpe met Smith in 1967 while he was studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; the pair moved into an apartment near the school and, as Arthur C Danto explains in his contribution to our new title, Smith became “the first love, the true love, with whom Mapplethorpe shared his first apartment in Manhattan, at the Chelsea Hotel.” 

“Characteristically, he always described her as possessing a certain ‘magic,’ a term he restricted otherwise to sex and to art, and there is to that degree an edge to the images he made of her. But there is no sense of danger or of threat emanating from her.” 

While Mapplethorpe moved on to male lovers, his affection for Smith never faltered – something Danto picks up on in the photographer’s pictures.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, self-portrait, 1980
Robert Mapplethorpe, self-portrait, 1980

“Toward Smith, Mapplethorpe is unfailingly protective,” the critic writes, “in an early polyptych, with five panels, she is shown in a white shirt, against a wall, facing a central panel that reads don’t touch here. In each of the lateral pairs she seems to be shy, uncertain, virginal, apprehensive, questioning—and don’t touch here is a warning to keep one’s hands off. The only other photograph that shows that order of female fragility is a portrait of himself as a coltish girl with makeup on.”

Patti Smith remained a key component within Mapplethorpe’s artistry throughout his life, bringing a certain continuity to his body of work. “What gives a certain authority to Mapplethorpe’s art is that virtually everything he ever did was there at the beginning,” writes Danto, “the self-portraits, the shots of Patti Smith, the sad pornography, the flowers. He began as he ended. His life has the unity that consists in working out a vision from which he never wavered.”

 

Robert Mapplethorpe

Smith too, continues to admire and love her late friend; she even contributed a poem to our newly revised and updated edition of the most comprehensive survey published of Mapplethorpe's photography. Want to read it? Then order your copy here.


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