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The Story of Smith and Mapplethorpe: From Just Kids to Revolutionaries

Patti Smith is a cultural legend, spanning mediums and genres in her artistic endeavors and influence. A musician, author, activist, photographer, singer-songwriter, and poet, Smith’s body of work resonates throughout American punk history and into contemporary zeitgeist, exploring phenomenons that are raw to the human experience.

In 1975, Smith released her first album Horses that brought poetry into punk, with lyrics that referenced the legacies of the Beat generation and dove into controversial topics, jolting the mainstream trajectory of rock and roll at the time. Her voice conveyed an honest insight into unsettling nature of the 1970s, commenting on politics and referencing her friendships with Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Robert Mapplethorpe before any of them had found fame. In fact, Mapplethorpe took the photo of Smith for the cover of Horses.

The cover of Patti Smith’s first album, Horses (1975), photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe

“The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one,” Smith said in an NPR interview. “I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about 12 pictures. By the eighth one he said, ‘I got it.'”

Mapplethorpe eventually moved to San Francisco where he dove into his sexuality, returning to New York City with a male partner. While Smith understood Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, the two has a communal understanding that they shared a bond beyond romanticism that existed outside of sexual orientation. They continued to evolve in their respective art forms, elevating each other into eventual celebrity status.

The relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe in particular was an incubator for their careers as artists, aiding in each other’s evolutions as photographers, writers, and the New York bohemians, canonized as saints of the 1970s artistic renaissance. The pair were lovers, roommates, friends, and collaborators. They were kindred spirits, both children of religious families finding themselves no longer alone in their artistic ambitions. They had each other.

When Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS, Smith promised him she would write about their story. Mapplethorpe passed away in 1989 from his battle from the disease, and though it took 20 years, Smith penned Just Kids in 2010 in memory of their relationship in the multitude of ways it manifested itself over the years.

In Just Kids, Smith writes that when she looks the album cover of Horses today, “I never see me. I see us.”

Smith’s poems are featured as part of the libretto for Triptych: Eyes Of One Another, a musical introspective on Mapplethorpe’s photography, acknowledging his legacy but also questioning topics of race, sexuality, and the contemporary ramifications of the past. Librettist korde arlington tuttle uses Patti Smith’s personal poetry with words from Essex Hemphill, an LGBTQ+ activist and poet. His involvement in the African-American queer communities of the 1980s contrast and compliment Mapplethorpe’s photos of black and white bodies, and provide a perspective separate from Smith’s deeply personal connection to the artist.

Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship was flawed, messy, and in opposition at times. Yet, their deep connection resulted in an artistic flourishing. They may have been just kids when they met, but Smith and Mapplethorpe grew into revolutionaries whose artistry reaches into the pockets of history and into the contemporary moment, stretching throughout generations.

Triptych: Eyes of One On Another is at the Cutler Majestic Theatre OCT 30-NOV 3. Join us for the seminal work exploring Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, life, and legacy.

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