New York

Patti Smith

Robert Miller Gallery

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”—it’s the unforgettable first line of “Gloria,” the song that opens Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses (1975). Smith’s best lyrics and poetry lace lucidity with mania, exuding both streetwise cool and incendiary heat, often in consecutive lines. That iconic, warbled salvo that inaugurates the track presciently captures the dueling impulses of guarded doubt and spiritual fervor that have long framed her work. Smith, nonpareil poet of New York City’s first-wave punk heyday, is the South Jersey–bred daughter of a Jehovah’s Witness mother and a religious skeptic father. Mirroring this conflicted upbringing, her music, writing, and art span the intellectual and spiritual spectrums, from the unruly romanticism of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud to the ritualized themes and ceremony of Christianity.

While Smith is most celebrated for her music and poetry, she has been making photographs since the early ’60s, and drawings and paintings since the late ’60s, years before cutting her first single, “Piss Factory,” in 1974. Regarding the photographs that constituted the majority of her recent exhibition, Smith writes, “They are not modern pictures.” Her small, black-and-white, emotionally raw photos could hardly be more distant from the glossy, large-format, color-saturated, deadpan visions so rampant in contemporary photography. Her pictures—silver gelatin prints made from Polaroids—feel like solemn shrines, flaunting their nonmodernity by pledging allegiance to a canon of long-dead creators.

Smith’s photos are saturated with doe-eyed romance; many are homages to socially marginalized, “tragic” artists. A lonely dirt road, stagnant puddles occupying its sagging center, shows a path near Rimbaud’s home in Roche, France, where he wrote the hallucinatory ode to self-pity A Season in Hell (1873). A placid river view turns out to be the scene of Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning in Sussex. Two photos show objects made by Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith had a particularly intense friendship. Percy B. Shelley Grave, Rome, 2005, catches a curious flare hovering above the poet’s resting place. Shelley’s, Yeats’s, Blake’s, Sontag’s, and Brancusi’s graves are similarly documented. The feeling is elegiac and reverential—even worshipful.

Less engaging are several larger photos and an installation incorporating handwritten stream-of-consciousness texts and Smith’s elegant right-leaning script claustrophobically surrounds the images or veers away from them in parabolas and geometrical configurations. The words are only semilegible, often careening into abstraction, miming the character of her songwriting. Smith’s strength is in the emotional immediacy of her imagery, and when juxtaposed with photography, as in Christ Rio de Janeiro, 2006—in which the soaring statue of the title is infused with drama by the low angle of Smith’s lens—her poetry competes with and dilutes the monumentality of the image. The latter work is one of several portraying statuary with the same awe Smith’s photos heap on her deceased heroes. Such a combination of imagery seems to be aimed at positing an ancestry of revel artists as a personal spiritual heritage. One thing is certain: It takes gall to so unabashedly lionize one’s idols in the witheringly self-conscious sphere of contemporary art, and in this sense Smith’s own summation of these photos is dead on: They are not modern pictures.

Nick Stillman