Patti Smith Reads Her Beautiful Letter to Robert Mapplethorpe About How He Taught Her What It Means to Be an Artist
“You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist.”
By Maria Popova
Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946–March 9, 1989) is best known for his iconic black-and-white photographs fusing starkness and sensitivity, but he was also a prolific artist who sketched, painted, and sculpted his way through life — a creature of irrepressible creative impulse, which he poured with vibrant vim into whatever medium moved him at a particular moment. Although his life was severed short by AIDS at the age of 42, Mapplethorpe left behind an impressive body of work — the product of his extraordinary work ethic. His most significant works are now collected in the lavish coffee table tome Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive (public library) — a curatorial masterwork by the Getty Research Institute and a bittersweet dream come posthumously true for Mapplethorpe, who as a young artist most longed for a coffee table monograph of his own.
At a recent celebration of the book’s release at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York, Patti Smith — who considered Mapplethorpe her creative soul mate, chronicled their coming of age as artists together in her magnificent memoir, and wrote the introduction to this new volume — spoke affectionately about Mapplethorpe’s singular contribution to visual culture, his uncommonly obsessive creative process, and his influence on her own ethos as an artist. She concluded with a reading of the beautiful, irrepressibly touching letter she wrote to her dear friend and muse as he lay dying — a letter he never got to read, but one that immortalizes his unrepeatable spirit and captures Smith’s eternal gratitude for everything he taught her about what it means to be an artist. Please enjoy:
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Often as I lie awake I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God. Remember, through everything, you have always held that hand, grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let go.
The other afternoon, when you fell asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.
The letter appears in Smith’s tremendous Just Kids (public library), which also gave us her reflections on reading as a form of prayer and the story of the childhood epiphany in which she knew she was an artist. For a bittersweet homage to their bond unbroken even by death, revisit Smith’s poetic tribute to Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea.