Patti Smith as an artist, 1998

From memory, I wrote this in New York, perhaps around November 1997, for a special issue of ‘World Art’ devoted to art and rock’n’roll. I wanted Patti Smith to stand for the ecstatic wing of rock’n’roll art, in contrast to the more studied and conceptualised emerging then (and now dominant). Any oddities in spelling, punctuation and capitalisation in quotations from Patti Smith are from the original texts.

Having dropped out of art school in the early seventies, Patti Smith dismissed the visual arts. ‘I don’t care about art anymore’, she wrote in her poem ‘Easter’, ‘passion will pass thru the veins stronger than the plastic creations of man’. Expressing admiration for Australia’s most renowned art critic, Lazslo Toth, mutilator of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Smith turned to poetry as the source of the passion she sought. Poetry quickly gave way to rock. But it was rock that eventually returned her to art. Recognizing that rock’s romanticism was underwritten by the hard slog of rehearsal, recording and touring, Smith came to the conclusion that ‘art is a conscious act requiring the harnessing of the subconscious, nuclear energy and the discipline of the spirit’. Repeatedly, she turned to Pollock, and especially his Blue poles (for which a track on her new album Peace and noise is named), as the embodiment of these qualities.

Smith’s long and winding road away from and back to art was traced in exhibitions at the Robert Miller gallery in January 1997 and May 1998. In her drawings, scratchy figures spring from the borders of the page like the demonic marginalia of medieval manuscripts. Her’s is a gnarled and knotty line; like most drawing propelled by passion it becomes more dense, even overworked, at those parts invested most heavily with emotion. Elsewhere it drifts off in delicate wisps, as if anything outside of the artist’s immediate attention didn’t matter. Crowded with constellations and vision, messiahs and lovers; Smith’s drawings have a style that meshes Artaud with the trip book. As Smith herself once said of a Todd Rundgren album, ‘Very Baudelaire. Very godhead’.

Is Smith exhibiting because like, say, David Bowie, a limited talent is amply compensated for by a stellar profile? I rarely say it, but Smith has earned the shows. There may be many artists more talented with the pencil, but few who manage to articulate an aesthetics of passion so convincingly in an age of irony and surface. It’s not damning with faint praise to say Smith has stuck with her program long enough to make the language of passion her mother tongue. Rather than simply drawing on idols and influences, Smith drew through them. Over the years, Smith’s mark, like her music, found its voice. ‘I was drawing a picture’, she wrote in 1974, ‘I thought it was Rimbaud but it was Dylan. I kept drawing. I thought it was Dylan but when I looked again it was me I was making’.

Smith can make herself through art because she believes so wholeheartedly in art and rock. She found in them a new, dogma-free religion. Performing with Sam Shepard in their play Cowboy mouth (1971), Smith declared that ‘the rock’n’roll star in his highest state of grace will be the new savior … a rock and roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth’.

From the start, Smith bought into romantic genius wholesale. Her writings trace a patrilineal line threading from Rimbaud through Pollock, Dylan and Cobain. In Patti Smith’s rock’n’roll heaven, Picasso rubbed shoulders with Hendrix and Brian Jones. Lionizing machismo, vitality and an early death, Smith transferred rock and roll’s credo to art; live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful folio. Mayakovsky was a street poet anarchist with ‘a Marshall amp installed in his chest’. Jackson Pollock a stumbling poet, dancing his ‘bull ballet and dripping blue poles’. In Smith’s pantheon, Pollock was the James Dean of the art scene; ‘his blood spattered like his own pain cause like most heroes he was a crazy driver’.

Smith’s willingness to play muse to a succession of bad boys drew sideways glances and outright criticism. ‘I’ve always been hero-oriented’, she asserted in 1973, ‘I started doing art not because I had creative instincts but because I fell in love with artists. I didn’t come to [New York] to become an artist, but to become an artist’s mistress’. Her faith in the romantic myth of the artistic underclass—the artist as criminal and outcast—meant that she was virtually obliged to declare theatrically her subjection as the necessary condition of transcendence. But Smith has built a career around reversals; she once listed the great art forms of history as ‘housecleaning, sculpture, rock and roll’. She has a sterling record in two of the three. Smith is the fan who outstripped her idols, a woman in whose shadow men lived, a woman who always leaves you guessing what a woman is supposed to be.

When Smith speaks of her idols, she goes further than any fan I know. She doesn’t so much believe in the stars as appropriate them to her own belief system. Listening to Smith on Pollock is like listening to a cover version that’s better than the original. In the late 1970s she wrote, ‘we are all children of jackson pollock. we are all chaotic mutants—an extension of his action. from his mad wrist spun us. . . . just as we thrust on our own and become one w/an arm going down on the sonic setup of an electric guitar’. Smith treats culture like a mega-mix, patching together a mad string of analogies, held together by the beat of her own idiosyncratic drum; ‘i dream a lot of brancusi when i play guitar. his struggle with marble is my drama with rock’.

Many of the qualities Smith has herself ascribed to rock and roll, flow through her imagery and line. Her drawings have that combination of ‘sainthood and hatchet murder’ she saw in Todd Rundgren’s song, ‘Is it my name?’. Typically, what she wrote of Rundgren is better applied to her own art. She ‘vomits like a diary. . . . A kaleidescoping view. . . . Rock and roll for the skull’. And for the eye.

Original publication: ‘Affairs of Art’, World Art, no 19, 1998, pp 58–59.



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