Monday, April 21, 2008

Patti Smith at the Fondation Cartier

There is a popular mythology that portrays artists as angry young savages smashing up the musty world of their parents and pissing on all tradition. While there are indeed artists, or at least art students, who take this approach, in my experience they tend to do so with mixed results. Conversely, most of my favorite artists have been great campaigners for other great artists and excellent teachers of art history. They’ve worked within a tradition, as links in a chain, and they’ve openly celebrated their teachers.

Patti Smith has always been a great celebrator of the poets and artists who taught her to communicate, and her current exhibit at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain is as much a memory box for her heroes and friends as it is a collection of her own art in several mediums. In fact, it most resembles a reliquary, a solitary place to reflect on what has passed away and what remains.

Following their successful 2007 David Lynch exhibit, the Fondation Cartier once again exhibits an artist who might not be automatically associated with the plastic arts. Tout le monde knows Patti Smith’s music, of course: her albums Horses and Easter are masterpieces and Radio Ethiopia is excellent, and her rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” was even a radio hit. Fans are familiar with her poetry; after all, she was a poet before she was a singer and has remained a poet her whole life. And art fans would be familiar with her work with Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the great artistic collaborations of the 1970s.

However, one might be surprised to hear that she has been taking black and white Polaroid photos for the last few decades, and maybe a bit skeptical about seeing an exhibit of Polaroids. Luckily, the pictures are fascinating, focusing again on such sacred sites as Virginia Woolf’s bed and Arthur Rimbaud’s grave. And the exhibit also includes several short films, also in black and white, recordings of Patti Smith reading her poetry, sacred relics, a room in which visitors have written all over the walls, occasional musical performances from Smith and several of her sketches and drawings. The overall effect is like visiting the home of a particularly inspired loved one.

For me, the room entitled The Coral Sea was the most moving part of the exhibit, consisting of several photos and items related to Robert Mapplethorpe and a long poem about his death and transformation read on a recording over a film of the ocean in black and white. Mapplethorpe’s death was one of the great losses of the plague years and his influence is evident throughout the exhibit.

The exhibit also pays homage to Walter Benjamin, René Daumal, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and Rimbaud, among others. In the gift shop, there is a table filled with books, CDs, and DVDs hand-picked by Patti Smith for her visitors. Claire will be glad to hear that the only contemporary music she has chosen are three Radiohead albums. Everywhere, in the gallery we see handwritten notes from Patti Smith and hear her spoken recordings. There’s a very personalized nature to it all- evidence that she played a significant role in constructing the exhibit. There is also something of the invocation here, calling forth the spirits to speak with them again. If Patti Smith, like all great poets, is part of a tradition, it is a living tradition, and one that she lives herself.

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