Although the Patti Smith exhibit that will open at downtown’s Contemporary Art Center on May 17 has been announced for some time, the details are only now becoming known. It will be a tribute to her close friend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
He is a subject whose resonance is great for both Smith — whose 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, recounted their friendship as young people in New York’s art world and is being made into a film — and the CAC, which famously faced (and beat) obscenity charges in 1990 for showing the Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Moment.
In a phone call from London — where she is studying for a Master’s degree in global art — Adjunct Curator Justine Ludwig (the exhibit’s curator) revealed some details of the planned show. It will be called The Coral Sea, after poetry Smith wrote about Mapplethorpe that she later recorded with guitarist Kevin Shields. (She will be performing The Coral Sea on May 18 at Memorial Hall. Go here for ticket information.)
“It’s very much a rumination on the life and death of Robert Mapplethorpe,” Ludwig said of the exhibit. “So there are a lot of objects in the exhibition that very much relate to his life. We’ve received things like Robert’s slippers that have his initials on them, and photographs of Robert from throughout his life. So it really focuses on the relationship between these two artists.
“It comprises of installations, photography and writing,” she said. “We’ll be showing part of the original manuscript of The Coral Sea that Patti wrote about Robert. We’re going to see a connection between the two artists throughout the exhibition. She has this very beautiful handwriting that is an art form within itself.
“There are medals, necklaces that Robert wore,” Ludwig continued. “There is an inkwell. There are small elements that will be presented in cases in the exhibition. It’s presented very much like an art installation. They’re not necessarily presented as historical objects but as elements that are part of Patti’s life.”
There are also photographs Smith took of and about Mapplethorpe. “Patti never took photographs of Robert’s face, she took photographs of his hands,” Ludwig said. “We’ll have a few (of those), and then a few photographic works that are more in reference to Robert but not of him.
“And we have an installation within the show called ‘Infirmary,’ which is all steel beds that are references to the beds Robert spent the end of his life in and that many people who died from AIDS passed away in. They are actual steel beds acquired by her.” (Mapplethorpe died from AIDS in 1989.)
The “Infirmary” portion is an expanded, site-specific adaptation of an exhibit Smith presented at the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Fair. There is also a “Coral Sea Room” in the CAC show that will feature video and music.
The show will have several photographs by Mapplethorpe with text by Smith – of the sea, a boat and a sculpture. (None was in The Perfect Moment.) “They’re very beautiful,” Ludwig said.