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The lives of struggling artists

Writer / Nancy Breslin

Nancy Breslin’s take on Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids and her time with Robert Mapplethorpe.

I recently finished Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. Its focus is the years she spent as Robert Mapplethorpe’s partner and then friend, from their late teens until his death in 1989. While the book is maddening in its lack of introspection, it is nonetheless fascinating to follow these two people through their struggles to survive as artists.

My familiarity with the pair was with Smith as a rocker and Mapplethorpe as a photographer, but she drew and wrote poetry and he made jewelry and created collages during their years as unknowns. Their drive was proven by their toleration of cold apartments and sparse meals. Success came through networking (time living at the Chelsea hotel helped tremendously, as did their push into Warhol’s outer circle) and by changing tacks: from collage to Polaroid for Mapplethorpe, from poetry to poetry + music for Smith. They moved apart as Mapplethorpe recognized his homosexuality and as they hit the big time, with Smith traveling with her band and Mapplethorpe moving in higher art circles, but they remained important friends and allies. Their climb makes fascinating reading, but it also made me think of the many talented people who similarly struggle without a similar outcome. Our society has tracks for commercial artists and art teachers, but future fine artists largely fend for themselves.

Now I’ve started Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, a novel that is also set in the New York art world, but mostly at the glossy and cut-throat upper end. It will be an interesting contrast.

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