The O-town Scene

March 10, 2011

The O-town Scene - Oneonta, NY

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BOOK TALK by Anne Van Deusen Memories of beatnik Manhattan ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith In 1990 I was living in Boston, doing the post-college thing where you think you know what you want to do but actually you’re just beginning to dangle your legs in the ocean of possibilities. I was doing a little bit of writing and hanging out on the weekends at the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner museums, soaking up the auras of creativity from those alive and buried in the past. My ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend, who I must admit I liked more than I ever did him, asked me if I wanted to go with her to a controversial exhibit that was opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The photographs that were to be on exhibit were done by Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died the previous year. I had not heard of him before, so I did a little background research and was interested to find out that this exhibition, titled “The Perfect Moment,” had been banned from several museums, and the director of the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati was brought up on obscenity charges for allowing Mapplethorpe’s work to be presented there. Nothing, however, had prepared me for the themes portrayed in his photography. As we made our way around the room, I felt devoured by the images. Many had a homosexual, sadomasochistic theme, and there were many nudes (including children). What they all had in common was making me feel as if I was a voyeur viewing something that screamed about my ignorance. All the photos hung heavy with a feeling of the underside of life. What a surprise it was, then, to read the memoir “Just Kids” by Patti Smith and have my predetermined persona of Mapplethorpe as a deviant artist crushed. Most of what we learn of Mapplethorpe is from brief descriptions of his childhood, then of his relationship with Patti Smith before his art became something a museum would ban. But even as that side of his art (and his life) begins to surface, we are met with a man who was as full of love and gentleness as he was of the insecurities he had of his sexual yearn- ings and what his ideas of art would ultimately lead him to create. The relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe was one of love, friendship, mutual artistic support and a lifelong dependency on each other’s approval. Even when they started to go their separate ways with their art, their mutual muse-to-artist existence stayed keen. Whenever one felt that they were embarking on a different path _ sexually, for Map- plethorpe _ or if one was achieving success before the other, their feelings of fierce com- mitment and responsibility for one another were palpable. The future poet and singer Patti Smith hailed from New Jersey, and after unfruitful attempts as a toy factory worker and a college student and eventually getting pregnant and giving the baby up for adoption, she headed to New York City. All she had with her were pencils, a notebook, her favorite Rimbaud work and some money she had stolen from a purse in a phone booth. Her accidental meeting with Mapplethorpe and subsequent events of their lives together is the stuff made for the dreams of all poets and artists who wished they had lived in the age of beatnik Manhattan. Smith is matter-of-fact about describing their lack of money and, a lot of time, their lack of food. Yet, the starving artist atmosphere is always buoyed up by the constant parade of famous characters (Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few) set against the backdrop of the legendary Chelsea Hotel and other venues popular at that time. Most of the time it was Smith who supported the duo, having found a place at Scribner’s Bookstore, which she was able to return to when money was short. What was fundamental about this story is that neither Smith nor Mapplethorpe ever gave up their vision of what they wanted to be and what they wanted their art to be. The book ends soberly with Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS, yet one is reassured that Smith will continue on as an artistic force for the both of them. Anne Van Deusen is the children’s book buyer at the Green Toad Bookstore in Oneonta. March 10, 2011 O-Town Scene 11

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