Tag Archives: Robert Mapplethorpe

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010

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Minimum – John Pawson

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Minimum is a picture book for grown-ups. My version is the minimalist one, a small, square, grey linen-covered hardback with glossy pages. Nearly every page has a single black and white or color image. Some of the photographs are double spreads. Some pages are blank. The idea of the book is ‘just enough but no more.’ That is John Pawson’s philosophy as well.

Pawson is an architect famous for minimalist interiors like the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue and for buildings like the Novy Dvur contemplative monastery in the Czech Republic. His aesthetic is rich and extremely spare—a Pawson home has no clutter, no stuff, no tiny detail unattended to, from faucet shapes in the kitchen to custom sofas with shelves in the salon. The look is very appealing—and there are ceiling-to-floor, nearly invisible cabinets to hide what you can’t part with so my library will be safe when I win the lottery and hire him to design my NYC penthouse.

Minimum has minimal text so I didn’t read it as much as absorb it—visually. Pawson opens the book with an extended essay that defines “minimum” as “the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction.” He didn’t invent this concept but he works it in all his designs and the results are arresting and oddly peaceful. Pawson admires Zen, Thoreau, Mies van der Rohe, early Tadao Ando, design by Shiro Kuramata, Shaker furniture and Stonehenge. He plays with texture and light. Much of his design empties color but his whites and naturals are infinitely nuanced and never flat.

The photographs in the book range from a solitary standing stone against a storm-blackened sky in Orkney to a 1984 black and white image of a black and a white shaved head in profile by Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m guessing it is simpler to reflect on the images in the full size book—they are very small in this version and some of the black and white shots seem dark and muddy. But the point is made.

Reduce a thing to its essence and it invites imagination. Space is conducive to creativity. Focus is sharper when the fuzz of clutter is removed. Pawson doesn’t believe in austerity; he pares things down to reach illumination. “The excitement of empty space” trumps the “paraphernalia of everyday life” for him every time.

I want to believe that kind of simplicity is an achievable goal and that the elegance and power of stripped-down surroundings can emerge from the messy quotidian. Probably a life’s work. Minimum gives you good examples. Extraordinary discipline might just clear out your tchotchkes and allow your innate, unfettered genius to shine through.

Minimum  John Pawson | Phaedon Press Limited  2000