Words of Love: Patti Smith’s Ode to Georgia O’Keeffe

Sarah Grant
Drawing by Sarah Grant

While Smith’s performance may have felt off-the-cuff, she couldn’t have been more in her leanin’-on-the-parkin’-meter element.

Patti Smith
City: New York
Venue: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Date: 2011-12-02

“This year marks the centennial of Jackson Pollock,” Patti Smith announced, mid-show, mid-thought, to a sea of silver hair and leather jackets last Friday at the Met.

Accordingly, the evening dripped with revelation. Smith served up a Pollock-style splashing of music, letters and poetry as a musical response to Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe, a collection of Alfred Stieglitz’s seminal modernist works that he exhibited in his 5th Avenue salon, the “291”. There, America got its first look at Lautrec’s salacious Elles, Rodin’s scant sketches, Picassos, Matisses, Kandinskys, and more. It was also where Stieglitz happened upon his lifetime love, Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Met collection opens with an early New York City scene by Stieglitz called “The Terminal”. Hailed for pioneering a new mode of photography, the subjects here capture the paradoxical essence of being a pioneer: the blurred curve of a horse standing in stark light, the quiet chaos of snowfall in a city. When Smith stands before the audience in her men’s blazer -- a taller, wiser, but no less mischievous, Oliver Twist -- it’s not hard to believe she too once waited at a terminal for something great.

Smith balanced the spine of an 832-page tome of letters between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, My Faraway One (“And this is only Volume I!”), while constant confidante, guitarist Lenny Kaye, and daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, on piano, accompanied. Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” awash in high coos and delicate strums, appropriately opened the tribute to Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s epistolary romance, where the divinely inspired Smith, at center stage, is a natural fulcrum.

The native moans of “a little Grapes of Wrath number” (“Ghost Dance”) careened into Kaye’s acoustic rumbles of “Dancing Barefoot”. With a strong caesura after every “she”, Smith crescendoed in her deadpan, witchy way. The reed-thin Kaye swayed along instinctually, eyes closed, anticipating Smith’s every turn.

The story of a photographer and his muse holds more weight for Smith than just the physical one she carried that night. Her acclaimed memoir, Just Kids, traces the friendship of Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, two New York City colts who ventured to the Met some thirty years ago in search of the muse themselves: “Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph,” Smith writes, about their first face-to-face experience with Alfred and Georgia.

Smith prefaced a poem from her first chapbook, Kodak, with Georgia’s letter: “I’ve gone further into the unknown with you than anyone else”. A tacit spirit lingered as Smith then read, “Untitled (Georgia O’Keeffe)” a nod to her uncultivated Chelsea days spent with Robert. “This used to be my showstopper,” Patti jibed. Of course, in hindsight, Horses was merely four years away.

A letter of nighttime convalescence, this time from Stieglitz: “Goodnight, I am with you,” provided the obvious, yet chilling introduction to “Because the Night”. Daughter Jesse, who had been playing tightly crafted original compositions the whole night, reeled into those major chords as the audience assisted with the chorus (as they would later, in the Occupy tip-of-the-hat, “People have the Power”).

Smith continued reading letters, fumbling over page numbers, lyrics sheets, looking for her godson in the audience, and calling herself Mr. Magoo: “If I don’t act professional, I won’t be critiqued as one,” she said. Eventually, she found the lyrics, as well as the poignant core of U2’s “Until the End of the World”. Kaye, arched and angular over his guitar, looked like a Picasso painting come to life.

While Smith’s performance may have felt off-the-cuff, she couldn’t have been more in her leanin’-on-the-parkin’-meter element. Kaye stood up and we all took the big plunge with Smith, hand-on-hip, MC-ing over acoustic come-ons. For a gust of a second, it seemed Smith forgot the hallowed spelling of “Gloria”, which, comparatively, is like a priest botching the Apostles’ Creed. She bashfully explained that she tried to replace “G-L-O-R-I-A” with “Georgia” for the night, but jumbled it in the rhythm. “Sorry Gloria, I was only foolin’ around.” The crowd was too busy transcending to care.

As the evening drifted from punk (“Pissing in a River”) to parlor piano (Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on my Mind”) Smith had something else on her mind, too: the dying art of the letter. On the inside of a room bound by centuries-old papyrus scrolls, Smith mused doubtfully about the fate of our archives: “There sure will be a lot of emails …” But one reassurance that Saint Smith may have overlooked, was that outside, a conspicuous faction of younger devotees were lined up unreasonably early for the show (it was not crowded), with copies of Just Kids tucked underarm, as if they were bringing their prayer books to Church.

The resonance Smith’s memoir has had with, well, kids, liberates her from being just another formerly hip CBGB survivor. Although it is nearly impossible to find any bohemian breadcrumbs left in an area now saturated with gourmet cupcake stands, Smith knows, like Georgia, Alfred, and Jackson, that the call of an artist is always audible to those listening for some strange music to draw them in.

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