Just Kids creates a frame around all the work of Patti Smith, the writer of this elegant memoir about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who died of AIDS in 1989, as well as the work of Mapplethorpe himself. Both artists were each other's muses, visionaries whose work, however different it was from one another, challenged established mores and shone with a unique brightness, and darkness. Their work was more than edgy. It was new. Mapplethorpe took leaps no one had taken before him, elevating gay pornography to the rank of art as he chronicled his own relationship to a world that repelled at the same time it forced one to look. Smith is a poet, writer, artist, photographer, rock and roller whose unique web of art was influenced by Mapplethorpe.
Smith's remembrances are tenderly wrought, with attention to detail that sometimes takes the breath away. It's not just Smith and Mapplethorpe who come alive as youths, but the extraordinary times in which they lived and which the two seem to transform with the urgency of their desire to transcend limitations and become artists of the first rank. It's not just the New York of their era we see shifting as they move, breathe and influence others and themselves, but everything in this brilliant retrospective.
The exquisite detail of Smith's remembrances, her trip to Paris in 1973, for example, when she slept in an attic room at L'Hotel des Etrangers, as she waited to visit Rimbaud's grave and Jim Morrison's, seep one in the richest and most delicate pictorial soup into which the reader sinks with Smith, as layer after layer of sacred time and knowledge are peeled away, until there is only art.
Smith reawakened my interest in Mapplethorpe. His work tended to repel me, even as I saw its beauty. There was one occasion in the mid 90s when I worked at a bookstore in Ithaca when I opened a large book of his photographs and chanced upon the series of a penis bound by a cord to the point of bleeding. I'd been listening to jazz, something I love, feeling totally open and in my element. The combination of books and jazz and the quietude of the section of the bookstore in which I worked had placed me in a kind of ecstasy. I was so happy there, and free to explore, and it was in this state that I came upon those photographs of Mapplethorpe which disturbed me to the core. I had no name for what I saw or witnessed. I felt like something sacred had not so much been upturned as been violated. I felt I'd seen a rape, close up, and all I could do was ask, why, for what? There was no answer for me, and so there and then, I closed the book on Mapplethorpe -- not because I couldn't understand the work, but because of how the images made me feel -- I wanted no part of it.
But it was lovely to see in Just Friends how Mapplethorpe was, as a young man in particular, how hungry they both were to be artists and how open they were together, and how brave in their art and explorations. I've often felt that artists and writers should create a frame around their work whenever it's published or shown, that poems should never appear alone in collections without context, a word or two, or even an image of the poet, something that shows how the creation arose, from whence it came. In Just Friends, Smith has created a wildly elegant frame around her friend and muse, around their life together. This is a work of art, not just a gift to Mapplethorpe, but to everyone who reads it.