Art Review

Compelled to Create

Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith

Clad in black, her gray-brown hair dangling down her back, Smith, 56, smiled and studied the walls. Her body language betrayed a need for isolation and respect. Through thick spectacles, she confronted over 30 years of her own artwork, surveying the drawings and silkscreens in modest awe, as if she’d just entered a roomful of old friends. Slowly, she approached a silkscreen of the of the World Trade Center’s disintegrating south tower, one in a series of her most recent images. Leaning in, she said to no one in particular, “this is beautiful.”

This ambitious retrospective traveled to Houston from Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum, where curator John Smith organized her meandering motifs into a nearly seamless narrative. “The surface of all of Patti’s work,” he explained, “shares the struggle that went into it. The struggle to get things right.” Indeed, Smith’s art, no matter what the specific theme, unifies the changing context of her expansive background with an unmistakable thread of tension. Born in Chicago and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Pitman, New Jersey, Smith endured a childhood marked by scarlet fever, tuberculosis, work in a factory, and the indignity of having to wear an eyepatch. After dropping out of a local teacher’s college in the late 1960s, she moved to Manhattan, landing at the Chelsea Hotel, where she met the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, William S. Burroughs, Janice Joplin, and Andy Warhol. In New York, Smith doggedly pursued a lifestyle of punk-rock, poetry, and political protest, publishing and performing consistently until 1979, when she took a hiatus in a Detroit suburb to raise her two children. After her husband of 18 years died of a sudden heart attack in 1994, she jumped back into rock-and-roll, touring with Bob Dylan and doing solo shows. She recently collaborated with Michael Stipe on a photography project. Her myriad personal transformations have been many. Throughout it all, however, drawing has remained a steady form of aesthetic expression. This show effectively reflects the steadiness in the circuitous course of Smith’s acrobatic career.

Not that it eschews the variety in her oeuvre. “Smith is an artist,” said curator John Smith, “who really can’t be defined by one set of media.” Even so, it’s the tower silkscreens that stand out for their innovation and timeliness. Insofar as any medium might define her, the silkscreens perhaps come the closest to achieving the raw tension that epitomizes her work. As the towers smoldered, most Americans experienced some mixture of rage, sadness, hopelessness, and a thirst for retribution. Smith, however, saw peace. On the morning of September 17, she rode the subway for the first time since the attack. After getting off at Broadway and Nassau, she walked to Ground Zero, looked up at the maimed rectangles that she “had never really liked,” and yielded to the insistent pull of human hope. She improbably glimpsed this hope in two grotesque bars of steel bent into an ominous peace sign, elements marking the south tower’s jagged apex. This obscene V burned itself into her mind as a raw gesture of optimism. She saw no irony whatsoever in the formation.

“It was so obvious to me,” she explained, “that I’d thought it would be on the front page of the paper.” A second image then moved her—a searing mirage of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. Feeble and skewed, with its hellish red tint, smoky clouds, and aura of impending collapse, the Tower of Babel has always impressed Smith as an arrogant grasp for heaven that eventually imploded into a cacophonous hell of miscommunication. “We are still the children of Babel,” she writes in her essay, “Twin Death.” As “the white dust that hung over our city for months” settled, she saw a world “speaking in divided tongues, unable to comprehend one another.” She was thus compelled to create.

When Smith formulates a response to anything—be it through drawing, painting, music, or poetry—she plucks very personal chords of aesthetic memory. It’s appropriate that the CAM exhibit originated at the Warhol Museum. “I knew that the first thing Andy would have done would have been a silkscreen of the towers,” Smith said, referring to the late pop-artist, as she explained why she chose the medium she did. Indeed, on the surface, her conscious evocation of Warhol seems obvious enough. The repetition, the emphasis on a ubiquitous media image, and the formalistic rigidity all suggest her loyal affiliation with her old friend. Warhol’s images, however, numb the viewer into emotional torpor. Smith’s towers, by contrast, inspire an unrelenting and acute emotional awareness.

The frigidity inherent in the repetitious silkscreen medium fractures as the hot steel latticework threatens to slip into the earth. This tension taps in us an urgent longing to feel more, seek more, and understand more about this seemingly unthinkable moment. Before it disappears. Before the rescue crews arrive. Before CNN “Warhols” it into a piece of eye candy. “We’ll never forget,” the popular bumper sticker declares. Smith’s Twin Tower silkscreens force us to think beyond slogans and contemplate the very nature of our collective memory.

A Warhol silksceen (of, say, a violent car crash) repeated ad nauseum denies the viewer an emotional foothold. It dulls the edge of pain and loss, leaving no questions to ask, no feelings to disentangle, no future to contemplate. The crash is over. There’s only wreckage to clear. Blood stains to wash away. Smith’s portrayal of the crumbling south tower, by contrast, never comes to rest. It presents not a set of morally neutral images but rather, as she puts it, “the momentary end of things.” Momentary. The hulking mass of steel and cable wavers on the brink of oblivion, momentarily suspended between the last gasp of life and death. It’s the momentary nature of the towers that brings us beyond ironic detachment and towards an appreciation of the ephemeral nature of our material lives. We are asked to contemplate the momentary end of sanity, the momentary end of peace, the momentary end of human decency, the momentary end of whatever it was before September 11 that made us happy.

Through such a bold request—one that eschews the affected cerebral dressing and ironic distance that taints so much contemporary art—Smith’s Twin Tower images refuse to let us off the hook. Instead, they imbue the act of looking with genuine emotional heft—again, in a way that so much contemporary art fails to do. (It’s no surprise that Smith prefers nineteenth-century literature to contemporary writing: “Give me Bronte and Hendrix and I’m set.”) The tragic sense of loss palpable throughout Smith’s tower motif demands a response. “May they never be built again,” she writes of the towers. But, of course, as she fully knows, the towers will be built again; they will rise from the ashes. Even their end will be momentary. We must therefore act on “the ache in the chest for engaging in a response to a public tragedy.” We must make a choice. It’s a rare experience today to walk into a contemporary art gallery where there’s something actually at stake. Smith has done just that with profound subtlety and sensitivity.

As the war in Iraq creeps on, she continues to choose hope. When asked about the underlying strain of optimism running through her tower series, she said that she will fight against despair “as long as I have breath, hope, children; as long as I have a desire for the future. I love tradition, art, and nature, so why would I accept the end of things?” Always seeing the political in the aesthetic—she has garnered further strength through her tower images and reiterated that “I am totally opposed to nationalism.” We need, she said, “to start a global anti-war movement.”

Later in the evening Houston’s art mob gathered to celebrate the show at the home of an art patron. Smith arrived with her boyfriend, Oliver Ray—who is in his early thirties—along with Ray’s parents. (Smith is older than Oliver’s mother). A group of us walked around looking at the impressive collection of contemporary art lining the walls. Smith politely refused the glass of wine offered to her, held her hands behind her back, and studied the twisting abstractions of Robert Rauchenberg, James Rosenquist, and Helen Frankenthaler, remaining quiet throughout. Approaching a series of Robert Mapplethorpe photos, she froze and her gray eyes became wistful. “I remember seeing these in his studio,” she aid. Then, as we left the room, she noticed sitting on a bookshelf a snapshot of a little boy. “You know,” she said, pointing to the picture as we approached yet another painterly abstraction, “that is the most beautiful creation of all.”

James McWilliams is a writer in Austin.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST