Patti Smith

Any number of important musicians and writers have produced interesting visual art. Victor Hugo made drawings, Auguste Strindberg painted landscapes, Arnold Schönberg did portraits. And, of course, Antonin Artaud’s drawings are famous. Rock icon Patti Smith aspires to this tradition and presented a dense installation of some eighty-five drawings in two galleries. Among the works, which dated from the late ’60s to this year, were a 1973 drawing of her hero, Rimbaud; a number of self-portraits; Three Studies for sculpture, ca. 1980; various Ascension scenes showing Christ surrounded by rising lines; and her Portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe for Robert Miller, 1978.

Smith draws in faint, hard-to-see pencil but often adds color and language to her works. Some have observed, in fact, that her technique seems modeled after Artaud’s, since her rough-hewn lines similarly pretend to provide a pathway to the unconscious. And yet Smith’s pictures often lack the over-the-top quality of the better outsider art. Surprisingly restrained and oddly unerotic, a number of them look like student doodles. In fact, Smith often aims for something more in line with conventional art practices: In After de Kooning, 1968, for example, she mimics the artist’s images of women but without any of his painterly skill. Her most recent images, inspired by the disaster at the World Trade Center (which was close to her home), are no different. For one work, she inscribed the names of the victims onto a paper airplane. She also made a number of silk screens using an image of the south tower; her largest picture was of the destroyed buildings constructed from words. Like Warhol, Smith is interested in repetition, but her variations on this one image fail to add up to anything significant.

Smith’s music and writing have magnetic presence. Certainly this was the case on September 28, when she gave an amazing concert in Pittsburgh: She was by turns sentimental, intensely sexy, and ferociously political. Smith the musician takes risks. (She was applauded and hissed for dedicating a song to John Walker Lindh.) But you need only glance at the Warhol Museum’s great Elvis (Eleven Times), ca. 1963, to appreciate the difference between her modest talent and Warhol’s. A genuine cultural heroine, Smith as a visual artist proves that her raw, declarative style is better suited to punk rock than to drawings on paper.

David Carrier

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