Patti Smith — Artistic Triple Threat

  • Share
  • Read Later
Patti Smith / Fondation Cartier

Patti Smith: A self-portrait.

At 61, musician, poet and artist Patti Smith isn't ready to rest on her laurels. After her induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame last year, and the recent Sundance premiere of Patti Smith: Dream of Life, a documentary about her life and work, she's now thrown herself headlong into a major exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, Patti Smith: Land 250, which highlights her photographs and drawings from 1967 to 2007.

Land 250 serves as a reminder that Smith has been making a lot more than just music all these years. She sat down with TIME's Jeffrey T. Iverson on the eve of the exhibition opening to talk about the life of an artist, her love for Paris, and the figures who have shepherded her along her creative path.

TIME: The director of Fondation Cartier says you've been omnipresent throughout the conception of this exhibition. Why are you so invested in this particular project?

For so many reasons. Because it's Paris, it's this place, it's my girlhood dream come true. Because in 1969, when I was 22, I came to Paris for the first time and stayed just around the corner, in a French crash pad at 9 rue Campagne Premiere. It was a six-floor walk up, with like eight people, and we all slept on the floor. I did a lot of drawings, and taped them all over the walls. And now these drawings are going to be on exhibition here. It's very moving for me. These drawings were done here with so many hopes and dreams, and they made it.

What was your attraction to Paris?

Since childhood it was my dream to go where all the poets and artists had been. Rimbaud, Artaud, Brancusi, Camus, Picasso, Bresson, Goddard, Jeanne Moreau, Juliette Greco, everybody — Paris for me was a Mecca. I had never traveled, never been to Europe, had very little money, so I worked in a factory and then in a bookstore and I saved for about two years. We just lived on bread and a little cheese, but it was so romantic. I imagined someday having a gallery and an atelier, and here I am. My atelier is a little hotel that overlooks Montparnasse graveyard, and my gallery is a whole floor of the Fondation Cartier. It's my world right now, the same world that was mine when I was 22.

Today you're most widely known as a musician, do you hope this exhibition of your visual art will help people see you in a new way?

You know, I didn't begin my life in 1975 with Horses. I recorded Horses in 1975, but was drawing in Paris in 1969. I would like people to see that I have various modes of expression, and that they were all done simultaneously. In 1978 when I put out Easter, Robert Mapplethorpe and I had a major exhibit of drawings and photographs at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, which for me was as important as putting out Easter, even though Easter had "Because the Night" on it, and brought us to another level.

You first made a name for yourself as a poet, then as a musician, now you're being recognized for your visual art. Was it a natural transition moving from one medium to another over time?

It wasn't so much how one thing led to another; it was about developing an aesthetic, and learning how to apply this aesthetic to what I did.

How do you think you developed your particular aesthetic?

My mother got me [William Blake's] Songs of Innocence as a child, and the idea of mixing drawing and handwriting was ingrained in me quite early. Since I was very young I loved poetry, reading the Bible, fairy tales. I was very young when I developed a personal aesthetic, ironically through fashion magazines — old Vogue magazines from the '50s. I noticed when I was 8 or 9 years old that the photographs were more pleasing and more beautiful than the photographs in the TV Guide or my mother's movie magazines. Vogue in the late '50s was a very sophisticated magazine, with photos by Diane Arbus, [Irving] Penn, Brassai, some of our great photographers.

You were very close to a great photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Did he have an influence on your work?

The best thing not only that I got out of Robert, but shared with Robert, was his work ethic. Robert worked almost every day of his life. I think of myself as a worker and I work in many different mediums. He was really a true artist, purely visual, and very hard working.

Your photos and drawings seem to suggest a very personal connection to literary figures and artists that have long ago passed away.

I have my relationship with my mother, but I also have had a very long relationship with Rimbaud or William Blake, and they've given me a lot. I counted on them when I felt alone, they shepherded me through my adolescence, they gave me an example to follow.

Allen Ginsberg and I used to talk about this — our spiritual ancestors. We would make a little game of 'Who's on your family tree'. Allen had William Blake and Walt Whitman; he thought Blake, Whitman and himself were a direct line. And he lived that line, and to his dying day, he was studying Whitman and Blake, and his own work resonates these two men.

It's comforting to think this. Especially if you're sort of disenfranchised, or seem disconnected with your family or your city or your school or whatever, you know we all seek reference points, some kind of extended family.

What was it you loved about the poet Arthur Rimbaud as an adolescent?

I loved Rimbaud especially because I was a young girl, he was a young boy, and I had no boyfriend, so I would just imagine he was my boyfriend. When I discovered him, I loved everything about him. His youth, his beauty, his language, his irreverence, his spiritual quest that had nothing to do with religion, the way he modernized poetry, everything.

Did he provide you with a model of what an artist should be?

What a model of an artist was for me was an artist who worked. Picasso was the ultimate model, because the work ethic he had. My romance for artists is more about their work than their lifestyle. It's interesting when people are beautiful or have romantic lives, but any of these people, whether it's Jim Morrison or Coltrane or Mozart or whoever I like, I don't like them because they had a self-destructive aspect or died young, I like them because they did great work.

All that work can make the artist's life a lonely one, is that the case for you at times?

Hopefully if you create something fine, people will relate to it, so you're communicating with people, and you're not in a void. On the other hand, because you're always creating and transforming, art always separates you, always.

Separates you?

In that, sometimes I wish I could just walk through a garden or a forest and be happy. But no, when I do I want to take a picture, then I want to write a poem. Sometimes I wish I could just relax, and appreciate life without wanting to continually transform all the good that I see into something else. But I think that's why I've always talked about the blessing and curse of being an artist — you have this special gift, but on the other hand you're never satisfied. The only time I have respite is when something is so great, and seems so perfect that I can't possibly, in any part of my conceit, think that I could improve upon it.

When was the last time that happened?

Tristan and Isolde at La Scala last December, with Waltraud Meier and Ian Storey. It was so beautifully conducted, so exquisitely directed, all the singers so touching that I was transported. It was five hours long, and I was wishing it were five hours more. Of course, though, as soon as time went by, I was like, 'Oh I want to take photographs of Waltraud Meier!'