Patti Smith Is Having the Time of Her Life

Smith will stop by the gallery to read from her latest book.

Patti Smith Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto.
Patti Smith Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Patrick McMullan.

Patti Smith.
Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Patrick McMullan.

Those who pored over Patti Smith’s latest book M Train will smile upon seeing a certain small, wooden table and chair installed in a room at Robert Miller Gallery in New York, where Smith’s solo show “Eighteen Stations” opens on March 3. The furniture hails from Smith’s beloved Cafe ‘Ino, which closed in 2013, much to the chagrin of the poet, photographer, artist, and musician, who was a regular at the Greenwich Village restaurant’s cozy corner table.

“The owner gave it to me when they closed, because I was so sad they were closing and because I sat there so much,” she told artnet News, speaking via phone in her signature gravelly tone from her New York office. “I keep them at Rockaway, in my little house.”

The table is mentioned multiple times over the course of the book, with Smith even admitting to once hiding out in the bathroom of the cafe until the spot was vacated by a fellow patron, rather than just choosing another table. Its presence at the exhibition is fitting, as M Train is the nucleus for “Eighteen Stations,” which is named for the 18 chapters of the book—dubbed “stations” as a play on, as Smith puts it, “a sort of mental train.”

Patti Smith, Cafe 'Ino, Bedford Street (2013). Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

Patti Smith, Cafe ‘Ino, Bedford Street (2013).
Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

But the 85 photographs from her life and travels will likely be of interest even to those unfamiliar with the intimate details of her formative years (which is also chronicled in the acclaimed 2010 book Just Kids). While some of the pictures hearken back to her marriage to the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994, most were produced in the past 20 years. Some are included in the pages of M Train, but many have never been displayed before, and feature everything from Smith’s two children at various stages of life to a sad, deflated silver balloon she encountered one New Year’s Eve.

Smith—who first found fame as a singer-songwriter in the 1970s New York punk scene—plans to swing by the gallery sporadically to read passages from the book to whomever happens to be hanging around, a practice she says she’s employed with some success during previous exhibitions.

“I’ll just stop by the gallery when my schedule allows, and if people are there, I’ll take them on a little tour,” she explained. “I like to interact with people. I feel like Wendy, reading to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.”

It’s a low-key approach given her immense celebrity, but this down-to-earth humility appears to extend into every facet of Smith’s being. She answers her office phone herself, describes the show as “fairly modest,” and even apologizes—unnecessarily, of course—for “not being very articulate at the moment.”

Patti Smith Guardian angel, Dorotheenstadt Cemetary (2013). Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

Patti Smith, Guardian angel, Dorotheenstadt Cemetary (2013).
Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

“I really don’t have a self-identity as a photographer at all, but I take a lot of photographs and I take them usually on my travels, as remembrances for something I’ve seen or a place I’ve been,” she said. “Traveling with my band, I’ve been in 50 countries in, you know, three months, so I have access to things and see things that a lot of people wouldn’t have the opportunity [to see]. I like to share.”

While on tour around the globe with her eponymous band or to promote her writing, Smith will often sneak away for a few hours or days to visit and photograph sites imbued with personal meaning to the artist, like Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, Constantin Brancusi‘s grave, or Sylvia Plath’s final resting place. She calls the process a “respite from public life,” admitting that following a major, sold-out performance, if time permits, she’ll travel hours by herself to an obscure location only to take one or two photos.

“When I’m taking a photograph, I’m really trying to capture the atmosphere of something,” Smith noted. “I’m not striving for technical perfection. I took a photograph of the bed that Keats was very sick in when he was dying of consumption in London, and the picture has a sickly look to it. And that’s what I’m looking for. I’m not looking for a perfect photograph of the bed.”

“Eighteen Stations” is Smith’s first show with the gallery since 2009, and her first major exhibition since 2014, when she mounted a breathtaking installation in an abandoned Rockaway Beach train repair facility as part of MoMA PS1 and the Rockaway Artists Alliance’s “Rockaway!” project.

Patti Smith, Aftermath, Rockaway Beach (2012). Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

Patti Smith, Aftermath, Rockaway Beach (2012).
Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

Smith has been represented by Robert Miller since 1978, the same year pal Robert Mapplethorpe signed with the gallery. That year, the pair produced a joint show featuring his photographs of her and her drawings of him, which came about after Miller spotted Smith’s sketches at the Gotham Book Mart gallery.

That her first show with the gallery featured portraits of another artist is telling, as Smith appears infinitely engrossed in the work and lives of others, especially those whose creative output she’s inspired by—ironic, perhaps, given how many people she herself has influenced. While M Train and “Eighteen Stations” are built around Smith’s own life and her own experiences as an artist, it’s often through an examination of the work of others that she’s able to come to conclusions about herself.

“I cherish the work of others—architects, photographers, actors, and poets, mothers, bakers, gardeners. You know, this particular show is pretty based on the places I’ve visited, the people, many who are departed, whose work I’ve admired. And also, sometimes just the beauty of how people remember their dead—sometimes, very modestly.”

Smith, who will turn 70 this year, likes to keep busy. Following a year of touring both with her band and for M Train, she shows no intention of slowing down. In addition to starting on another book, she’ll be intimately involved in the writing process for the Showtime miniseries adaptation of Just Kids, produced by John Logan. The artist also wants to produce more installation work in the future.

“I’ve always loved that form of creation,” she says. “I think that this year I’ll be spending less time on the road and more time with more ambitious work. I’m not trying, with this particular exhibition, to do anything particularly groundbreaking. I’m just sharing the world of my book, which is also my world.”

Luckily, it’s a pretty fascinating world.

Patti Smith, Hotel Victory (2013). Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

Patti Smith, Hotel Victory (2013).
Photo: Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

Patti Smith’s “Eighteen Stations” will be on display at Robert Miller Gallery from March 3–April 16, 2016. 


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