DETROIT — “Here’s my favorite painting in the museum,” says Patti Smith, bringing a hand up to her chest, as if the sight of her old friend caused her heart to skip a beat. She stands in a second-floor gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts in front of Georges Seurat’s “View of Le Crotoy from Upstream,” an 1889 oil landscape in the French post-impressionist’s signature pointillist style.
Modest in size, the picture is a symphony of luminous color applied in rapid dots. It’s considered a landmark, one of less than a dozen paintings by Seurat believed to still be in the original frame painted by the artist. Smith admires what she calls Seurat’s “photographic sense” and she loves the sea, but what really makes her knees weak is the frame. The dark palette of reds, blues, greens and yellows sings like a sumptuously voiced chord.
“It’s just magnificent,” she says. “If one only had a little portion of this frame, it would be beautiful enough, but the fact that he did that and it remains intact is a miracle. I just find it so inspiring that he kept going. He wasn’t confined to the canvas. I can imagine that if Seurat had lived long enough he would have done the painting, the frame and then the wall.”
The painting. The frame. The wall. The sense of an ever-expanding universe of possibility captures something important about Smith’s peripatetic life and the trajectory of her iconic career as a poet, musician and visual artist. She has willed herself into greatness, finding a personal voice in a dizzying array of pursuits, pushing formal boundaries and creating work that even when it fails does so in interesting fashion.
In recent years, she has been taking photographs with a vintage Polaroid camera. About 70 of these intimate black-and-white snapshots are collected in “Patti Smith: Solo Camera,” which opened last Friday at the DIA. Organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., it’s the first American exhibition to focus on Smith’s photography.
On this Thursday, she allows a photographer and me to shadow her as she explores the museum she first visited in 1973, arriving with a friend from New York to worship at the shrine of the great Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry” murals. Smith grew close to the collection during the 16 years in which she retreated from public life in the 1980s and 1990s, settling in St. Clair Shores, Mich. She and her late husband, Fred (Sonic) Smith, were museum regulars until he died in 1994, and the couple would bring along their two young children.
During Thursday’s tour, Smith makes ports of call at a few works she has always loved, but much of the time she simply strolls in search of beauty, surprise and revelations, letting her eyes improvise the path. It is a peek behind the curtain of her imagination and her passionate affair with art and the people who make it. Mostly, it is an opportunity to see the museum through the eyes of an artist who cherishes the poetry in all things, from the profundity of Seurat to the quotidian pleasure of every child’s favorite at the DIA, the humble bronze donkey you are allowed to touch.
The darkly burnished original finish of the 1927 sculpture by the German artist Renee Sintenis has been discolored after decades of being petted, the damage resulting from skin oil and dirt. The museum uses it as an object lesson to explain why you can’t touch anything else. Smith stops in midsentence when she stumbles upon the equine and breaks into a big grin. She starts caressing his nose.
“I love the donkey because I love donkeys,” she says, laughing. “But also the fact that you can touch it because I think sculpture should be touched. I’ve been almost thrown out of museums for touching Brancusis. I just can’t resist touching sculpture. It’s worth getting thrown out for — I shouldn’t say that, but …” Her voice trails off.
“One of the advantages of buying art is that you can touch it at home without anyone wagging a finger at you,” I offer.
“I like to take it a step further,” she responds. “I like to create a work of art. Then I can touch it all I want.”
At 65, Smith is about 5-foot-8, slender with a narrow face whose androgyny has coarsened some with age. But everything about her softens when she smiles, which is often. She’s wearing her hair in braids, and her clothes on this day are pretty much what you would expect: blue jeans, white T-shirt, black jacket, black boots open at the tongue with two different color socks showing. Around her neck are chains adorned with medallions and charms, including a 200-year-old Ethiopian cross. A world-class chatterbox, she turns conspicuously taciturn only when asked about a ring attached to her necklace.
“This is a ring from a friend of mine,” she says.
It can be hard to wrap your arms around Smith’s many gifts, her sweeping Walt Whitman-like field of vision and her unique role as a seer-philosopher for her generation. She is, famously, a major influence in rock history.
The spiritual godmother of punk rock, she crossed her Roman-candle poetry inspired by the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud with scruffy and improvisatory rock ‘n’ roll and a visceral, no-safety net singing and performing style. It all consolidated on her landmark album “Horses,” which streaked across the sky like a comet in 1975.
But Smith’s creative life began years earlier as a poet and visual artist. Her early drawings have a wild energy, sketchy and wiry. The bohemian life she led in the late ‘60s, when she and the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were inseparable, was saturated with art. She and Mapplethorpe were each other’s muses and, for a time, lovers. Even later, when they grew in different directions and his homosexuality became more central to his identity, they remained the other half of each other’s heartbeat.
In “Just Kids,” Smith’s best-selling memoir that documents her early years in New York, she writes that the couple had so little money that they could afford only one ticket to museums. One would go in to see the exhibits and report back to the other; the next time, they’d reverse roles. Art books were among their most prized possessions, and she was partial to those devoted to Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and William Blake, the English romantic poet, artist and mystic.
Museums hold a special place in Smith’s cosmology. Raised in suburban Philadelphia, she went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the first time on a family outing when she was 12. She swooned over languorous Modiglianis and the elegant figures by Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. But the big bang was the brutal confidence of Picasso. The experience changed her life. Artists, she now understood, see what others cannot.
At the DIA, Smith looks deeply. While she notices the formal qualities of color, line, texture, space and composition, her commentary usually centers on how the work makes her feel. She is drawn to certain subjects — St. Jerome, for example, because depictions invariably remind her of her father no matter when or where they were created — and she favors intuitive understanding over heady analysis. “As Robert used to say, it’s good or it isn’t,” Smith says as she walks down a corridor.
“Artists aren’t always real articulate about their art. I look at a Brice Marden and I understand it perfectly. I don’t need to discuss it. I know Brice as a friend. But I bought a book on Brice and I was reading it and didn’t understand a word. The language was so dense and on such a level — and I’m not saying that critically — that I couldn’t follow it.”
She comes to a large-scale painting of St. Jerome attributed to the workshop of the 17th-century Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera. It was the first of three or four versions of the fourth-century translator of the Bible that Smith stopped to inspect. Here, he is pictured as older man with a bald pate and beard, sitting half-clothed in the wilderness, writing in a book with an additional scroll unfurled across his lap.
“Jerome is usually studying or writing or contemplating, and that was my father,” says Smith. “He didn’t have an education beyond high school, but he was highly intelligent and very well-read.”
Smith ducks inside the European renaissance galleries, zipping back in time a couple of centuries. She admires a French tapestry for the poetry of the image — a blindfolded, triumphant Eros with a bow and arrow — and inspects some Northern European wooden sculptures of saints and the Madonna. She is not a religious person in the traditional sense, so I asked her why she responds so strongly to Christian imagery. “I love the art that came out of religion,” she begins.
“One of Christianity’s greatest gifts was the art that came out of it. In the name of Christianity, there has been much horror, and one can talk about that, but that’s not on my mind. What’s on my mind is the beauty of the art, and how the New Testament stories have inspired artists. Just look at this work. It’s one thing after another. And what’s more beautiful in the end than Christ’s message: Love one another.”
Another picture catches her eye, and she makes a beeline for “Saint Jerome in his Study,” a small, brilliantly painted devotional work the size of a large postcard by the 15th-century Flemish master Jan van Eyck. Jerome is reading, hand on chin, surrounded by his stuff: books, an hourglass, a shapely bottle, a jar, a folded letter. Each object is loaded with symbolism. Smith studies the painting in silence for a long time. Then, moving away, she says: “I’d like to put that over my desk.”
It’s hard not to think of Smith’s own photographs in “Camera Solo,” which are of similar scale to the van Eyck and also document everyday objects pregnant with meaning. The pictures are steeped in Smith’s private iconography, illuminating her reverence for the artists, writers, family and places that have inspired her.
She focuses on the personal possessions belonging to her muses, common objects elevated into talismans — a fork and spoon used by the poet Rimbaud, monogrammed slippers that belonged to her beloved Robert Mapplethorpe, a coffee cup favored by her father, artist Frida Kahlo’s bed, the German writer Hermann Hesse’s typewriter. Smith’s photos are casual and fleeting, and the technical imperfections of the old school Polaroid investing them with authenticity and quiet emotional intensity.
Smith walks into the flood of natural light barreling into Rivera Court and tilts her head upward to survey the four wall s. Diego Rivera’s murals (1932-33), whose sensual forms capture the dynamic assembly line, roaring machines and heroic laborers of the Ford Rouge plant, are the finest examples of the great Mexican muralist’s work in America and the artist considered it his greatest triumph. Like everyone who sees them, Smith was overwhelmed by the power and sweep of the works when she first saw them in 1973.
Today the murals also bring to mind Fred Smith, who grew up in Detroit and considered the DIA equal to any museum in the world. Much of the video for their song “People Have the Power” from 1988 was filmed in Rivera Court. There are other departed loved ones who come to mind as Smith wanders the DIA. She was very close to Sam Wagstaff, the museum’s curator of contemporary art from 1968 to 1971, who later became Mapplethorpe’s mentor, patron and longtime lover. Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987, two years before Mapplethorpe succumbed to the same disease.
Smith ends her stroll in front of Seurat’s “View of Le Crotoy from Upstream.” Given her spiritual connection with visual art and her talent for various mediums — not to mention her gifts as a poet — why has she devoted her life to music? The answer goes back to Seurat’s painted frame.
“As a young artist I always felt confined to the paper, to the canvas, to the typewriter, to the page,” she says. “I don’t know why I felt like that, but I think it’s because I’m a natural performer. I wanted to keep going.”