You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Given her other recent high-profile activities, she could view her upcoming Contemporary Arts Center exhibition and concert as more of a footnote than a career milestone. The show, The Coral Sea, opens May 18 — also the date of her Memorial Hall performance.
After all, before her telephone interview with CityBeat from a London hotel, she had been in Tangier, where she played her music with the trance-inducing Master Musicians of Jajouka and felt the ghostly presence of William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin and other Beat-Era luminaries who once made Morocco an international alternative-arts center.
Then she went to Rome, where she toured Zaha Hadid’s new Maxxi contemporary art museum (with an eye toward doing a show there) and met Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square. (Hadid also is the CAC’s architect.)
So maybe she would be a bit blasé about her Cincinnati plans after all that international adventure. But not Patti Smith — never.
And especially not for the exhibition she has put together especially for here. It is a remembrance of and tribute to her close companion, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. (Their relationship as young people in the New York of the late 1960s/1970s, looking for their place in the city’s arts world and becoming lovers for a time and devoted friends and muses, was the subject of her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids.)
“I’m excited because it’s something new,” she said. “I have done a lot of exhibitions in the past 20 years in America and Europe, but this one is specific. And I’m interested in seeing how the performance evening will evolve.”
Both Smith and Mapplethorpe found their place, of course, and became famous — she as a quintessential alternative-rocker whose 1975 debut album, Horses, is recognized as a masterpiece. She has also developed a successful career as writer, poet and visual artist who has gallery and museum shows worldwide and is going amazingly strong at age 66.
And he became one of the country’s top fine-art photographers for his resonant black-and-white work, including the iconic Horses cover photo of her. He died of AIDS in 1989 at age 42, but demand for his work continues to grow.
The Coral Sea will include three of his photographs, but also photos of him that Smith took, personal objects of his that she has kept, and work of hers — inspired by her feelings for him but not always specifically about him.
“I was asked to do a show in Cincinnati and I wanted to do something that incorporated new work and also some more traditional work that I had,” she explained. “I wanted it to have a theme and I wanted something special.
“So I was thinking that since Robert had an interesting history in Cincinnati and we’re coming toward the 25th anniversary of his death, that it would be interesting to do an exhibit that he was a key part of,” she continued. “The exhibit itself is about death and transition and Robert is the focus — a visual symbol of (it).”
The “interesting history in Cincinnati” that Smith referred to in our conversation relates to The Perfect Moment, the Mapplethorpe traveling career retrospective that became controversial because of some of his nude male photographs. In 1990, the CAC faced (and beat) obscenity charges for presenting it here.
It was the kind of prosecution that to many smacked of anti-arts, homophobic persecution by Hamilton County’s conservative establishment and made Cincinnati synonymous with censorship
But Smith, it turns out, has fond and even tender feelings for Cincinnati. They relate to a private time in her life, when she and husband Fred “Sonic” Smith (guitarist of late-1960s proto-punk Detroit band MC5) lived quietly in the Motor City and raised two children. They married in 1980; he died of a heart attack in 1994.
“My husband and I used to travel, stay in Cincinnati and go to Kentucky to see his father’s family,” she said. “They were from Boonesborough (in central Kentucky). My father-in-law used to tell us stories that when he was a boy in Kentucky, Cincinnati was called the Queen of South because they had electricity and bridges and lights. For a Kentucky hillbilly, Cincinnati was Paris. It was always beautiful to listen to him to tell stories about Cincinnati.”
This exhibit came about through Justine Ludwig, who last year was CAC’s assistant curator. (She is now a London-based adjunct curator, studying global art, but is supervising the show’s installation here.) Already aware of Smith’s photography, Ludwig contacted Smith’s gallery. “The proposal was to present the scope of her artistic expression,” Ludwig said via email. “Patti crafted the overarching vision of the exhibition, which I find to have an unbelievably poignant and moving message … about loss, remembrance and transcendence. I hope that the show evokes a personal connection to these themes within the audience.”
Raphaela Platow, CAC’s director and chief curator, thinks the exhibit as envisioned by Smith is a powerful vision. “First and foremost, it is a very beautiful homage, a memento mori, to Mapplethorpe,” Platow said. “The two had a very special relationship. Without each other, neither would be who they are. So this looks at who he is and who she is in a very different way than an exhibition of his work would allow us to do.”
During the telephone interview, Smith talked about some of the show’s different elements as well as the Memorial Hall performance. She is particularly happy with new work that will debut here — four black-and-white photographs taken at the gravesite of Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, author of the classic short story “Rashomon.” He died young, at age 35, in 1927.
It will be in an exhibition section devoted to death and cremation — both Akutagawa and Mapplethorpe were cremated. “It was winter, quite cold and snowing, and they’re very stark and I like them very much,” Smith said. “And I also thought Robert would like these photographs. We knew each other so well, and sometimes I’ll take a photograph and know Robert would like it.”
Among other exhibition elements:
• An installation called “Infirmary,” a white room featuring old hospital beds with draping and works on paper and based on an exhibit she showed in Melbourne in 2008. “It symbolizes Robert’s illness and illness in general,” she explained. “Much of our illness takes place in bed and these beds are from an old hospital or prison hospital. I found them in Melbourne and had them shipped to America. They’re just very humble metal beds and have seen a lot of illness.”
• Several photos featuring Mapplethorpe’s hands. “We were in the Chelsea Hotel and he was working on a small piece. Robert had very nimble hands. One photo is of him working, and one is merely Robert standing in a certain position where he would often rest his hands on his hips. I always loved Robert’s hands.”
• A letter Smith wrote to Mapplethorpe just two days before he died, which didn’t reach him in time. “So I incorporated it with a photograph of his that’s also in the exhibition,” she said.
• Personal objects related to Mapplethorpe, such as a small totem he and Smith made together in 1969 after the death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
The show’s title comes from a prose poem she wrote after Mapplethorpe’s death, about a young man named M who travels on a ship to the Solomon Islands in search of a Herculean moth with a wingspan of more than one foot. He wants to attach it to himself — a metaphor for transformation.
She later recorded The Coral Sea in London with My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields improvising on guitar. It inspired “The Coral Sea Room,” which she created in 2008 for Foundation Cartier in France. A version will be at the CAC. Cordoned off by black curtains, it will feature benches, a recording of her performance of The Coral Sea and two video projections — one onto a screen, one onto a bed of leather and metal.
Smith’s Memorial Hall concert — with daughter Jesse on piano and Tony Shanahan on bass — has been promoted as a performance of The Coral Sea. But it will be very different from the recording, she said.
“I’ll probably find some way to edit it and also do some songs that Robert liked or I think are appropriate with the exhibition,” she said. “I haven’t performed in Cincinnati for a long time. So I would like to give the people a mix of both the piece itself and songs that magnify the piece. It’s important that the evening be challenging, but that people be entertained.” (Smith will do songs from her repertoire that work best with simple accompaniment.)
This exhibit follows up on Just Kids, which has sold almost one million copies, been translated into such languages as Icelandic, Hebrew, Korean and Croatian, and might become a movie if Smith writes a screenplay. It has changed Smith’s life and made her a symbol for younger generations — if she wasn’t already. In some ways, they see her time in New York the way she sees the Morocco of Burroughs, Bowles and Gysin. Full of radical, freethinking, anti-establishment creativity.
“That’s one of the things people like about the book which I hadn’t thought about,” she said. “I was merely writing about friends, the people who were there and the city as I remember it. I wrote it because Robert, the day before he died, asked me to. I would never have written a book if he didn’t ask me. It would have been too painful and arduous to do. I thought it would be a cult-type book. But it’s been the biggest success I ever had.”
Ultimately this show, like the book, is a continuation of a promise Smith gave Mapplethorpe on his deathbed to keep his spirit, his legacy, alive. “I wanted to be an artist and a writer since I was a young girl,” she explained. “But when I was 20, I was still somewhat self-conscious. I didn’t know who I was; I wasn’t totally sure of my abilities.
“Robert really instilled confidence in me. He had complete confidence in himself as an artist. We each gave each other a gift; we each took care of each other in a special way. So it’s my happy duty to salute him as I go through life.”
Patti Smith: The Coral Sea exhibition officially opens at Downtown’s Contemporary Arts Center on May 18 and continues into November. There is a special pre-opening celebration at 8 p.m. on May 17; admission to that is $10 for non-members. General-admission tickets for her May 18 Memorial Hall concert are sold out, but there is a waiting list at 513-345-8422. Some $250 VIP packages — including a pre-performance reception — are available. Visit contemporaryartscenter.org or call 513-845-8400 for more information.