Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Becoming an Artist
Patti Smith is known primarily is a singer-songwriter. In Just Kids, she describes her journey to this particular form of art so that it seems almost an accident. She might equally well have been a visual artist or a poet. What is perfectly clear from the very beginning, however, is that she was bound to become some kind of artist. The same is true of Robert Mapplethorpe, who also ended up achieving fame in a different art form from the ones (sculpture and collage) he was practicing when he met Smith.
Smith emphasizes the essential place the arts had in her life from the very beginning. She talks about her favorite books, from Foxe's Book of Martyrs to A Child's Garden of Verses. As a teenager, she immersed herself in the visual arts from Fra Angelico to Modigliani. The first major argument she recalls having with her father was over the merits of Picasso's painting. Apart from casual work to pay the rent, neither Smith nor Mapplethorpe either had or considered any job except being an artist.
The book is also the story of Smith and Mapplethorpe's artistic collaboration, from working side by side in their Brooklyn apartment and later at the Chelsea Hotel, which was full of artists at the time, to Mapplethorpe's late photographs of Smith, which added to her fame and which her husband said made her look like Mapplethorpe. The two artists were each other's inspiration and critic, a process which, despite the vicissitudes in their personal relationship, ended only with Mapplethorpe's death.
The Importance of Physical Objects
Both Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe grew up poor. When they furnished their first apartment at 160 Hall Street, they had to do so using objects scavenged from the streets. Smith in particular was indifferent to money and later became concerned when Mapplethorpe started to spend a lot of his time in the company of the rich and famous. In this sense, Smith and (at least initially) Mapplethorpe were not materialistic. However, they both formed strong attachments to physical objects, and the book is full of things which the author invests with great significance. When Smith was a child, she used to visit a girl called Stephanie, who had leukemia. She reports a strong fascination with Stephanie's possessions, some of which Stephanie used to give her. She kept these objects in a secret compartment under the floorboards under her bed, along with other treasures she had amassed, often by scavenging the streets. One day, she was so delighted by a skating pin she found in Stephanie's jewelry box that she took it without asking. She planned to return it and apologize, but Stephanie died a couple of days later.
When Smith moves to New York, she gets a job at a branch of Brentano's, which sells jewelry as well as books. Though she would have preferred to be in the poetry section, Smith is fascinated by one particular necklace, which she describes in detail:
My favorite object was a modest necklace from Persia. It was made of two enameled metal plaques bound together with heavy black and silver threads, like a very old and exotic scapular. It cost eighteen dollars, which seemed like a lot of money. When things were quiet I would take it out of the case and trace the calligraphy etched upon its violet surface, and dream up tales of its origins.
One day, a boy comes in and buys the necklace. It is Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she had met briefly before but with whom she now makes a connection...
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through their shared appreciation of this beautiful thing. As she hands it to him, she says:
Don’t give it to any girl but me.
Mapplethorpe promises not to, and one might date the beginning of their relationship from this moment. The necklace passes between them throughout their relationship, and it is the last of the physical objects connected with him that she itemizes at the end of the book.
I have a lock of his hair, a handful of his ashes, a box of his letters, a goatskin tambourine. And in the folds of faded violet tissue a necklace, two violet plaques etched in Arabic, strung with black and silver threads, given to me by the boy who loved Michelangelo.
Mapplethorpe himself even admits to jealousy in his love for physical objects, saying that if he cannot possess them, he doesn't want anyone else to have them either. Early in his relationship with Smith, he destroys a William Blake etching which he has stolen from Brentano's. The destruction seems worse than the theft to Smith, but Mapplethorpe attempts to justify both:
“At least they’ll never get it,” he said.“Who are they?” I asked.“Anyone who isn’t us,” he answered.
Unconventional Loves and Relationships
Smith and Mapplethorpe's meeting and the beginning of their relationship are very much like a conventional love story. The third time they meet, he even pretends to be her boyfriend to help her to escape from an awkward date. However, they were only monogamous lovers for a fairly short period. For most of the two decades in which they knew each other, their relationship was something much more complex and difficult to define. After they had been together for about a year, it became obvious that Mapplethorpe was predominantly homosexual. Smith left him for another man, and he went to San Francisco, where he contracted gonorrhea.
By the time of Mapplethorpe's death, Smith was married with children. Nonetheless, Mapplethorpe remained one of the central people in her life. A major theme of the book lies in exploring the nature of their relationship. They were something more complicated and intense than friends, more personal and intimate than collaborators, only fairly briefly lovers. No label is sufficient, hence the need for an entire book.
The memoir also explores the unconventional nature of both Smith and Mapplethorpe's relationship with others, particularly with Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe's patron and lover, who launched his artistic career. Art is central to Smith and Mapplethorpe's relationship with one another and their relations with all those around them. Smith shows how artists' concentration on their work allows them to pursue and even flourish in relationships which outsiders would regard as bizarre.