Last Updated on January 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
Patti Smith is the author, the first-person narrator, and one of the two principal subjects of the memoir Just Kids. After a brief foreword about the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith describes her own childhood and upbringing. She was obsessed by religion as a child and spent a lot of time in prayer. Gradually, however, books—particularly poetry—became as important to her as religion, and soon she added the visual arts to her great enthusiasms, writing that she "happily dwelt in the world of Modigliani, Dubuffet, Picasso, Fra Angelico, and Albert Ryder."
In 1966, at the age of nineteen, Smith had a relationship with a seventeen-year-old boy, leading to an unwanted pregnancy. She found a couple willing to adopt the child and, when she was twenty, moved to New York City, where she worked at Brentano's bookstore and met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them moved into a cheap apartment in Brooklyn and worked on their respective arts.
Although it was always clear that Smith would be an artist, she spent a long time experimenting before she decided which particular art she would pursue. For many years, she was primarily a poet, and she had achieved some success in this field before it occurred to her to add a guitar to her poetry performances and become a singer-songwriter. The picture of Smith that emerges from the memoir is one of a child, girl, and woman completely focused on the arts, never seriously doubting her vocation to be a creative artist. Her references to dead poets, such as Rimbaud, are much the same in style and tone to her writing about artists she actually knew. Art is central to all her relationships. Mapplethorpe seems to have become such a vitally important figure in her life at least partly because their artistic visions aligned, and she found in him her ideal collaborator.
Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946, the same year as Patti Smith, and grew up in a poor family on Long Island. He loved drawing and creating delicate pieces of jewelry for his mother and sisters. His mother wanted him to become a priest, but unlike Smith, his interest in religion was purely aesthetic, focused on vestments and ritual. Throughout his life, Mapplethorpe was drawn to beautiful objects, and he took great care with his clothes and appearance. Although not a jealous (or faithful) lover, Mapplethorpe felt a romantic jealousy where objects of beauty were concerned. He once destroyed a William Blake etching so that no one else would be able to possess it.
Mapplethorpe and Smith were initially lovers, but within the first year of their relationship, it became clear that he was predominantly homosexual. Over the next two decades, he had various gay relationships, as well as working as a rent boy. His most stable and successful sexual relationship was with Sam Wagstaff, a wealthy older man who supported his artistic career. Smith believes that Mapplethorpe needed a patron to support him and bring out his talent. Although he and Smith initially lived the same bohemian lifestyle, wealth and success were always more important to Mapplethorpe. He was attracted to Wagstaff's privileged background and, toward the end of his life, mixed with the rich and famous as much as he could.
Mapplethorpe is portrayed in the memoir as a highly complex, contradictory, and ultimately self-destructive figure, with a very strong streak of selfishness which is redeemed, at least for the author, by the fact that he places even himself second to his artistic ambitions. Like Smith, he takes some time to discover the area of art in which he will eventually find fame. In 1967, he is principally focused on sculpture and collage. He regards Smith as an important collaborator and takes several iconic photographs of her.
Sam Wagstaff is Mapplethorpe's patron and...
(The entire section contains 1144 words.)
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