In this black and white portrait photograph the singer-songwriter Patti Smith sits naked on a wooden floor in a crouched position, her legs folded so that her knees are tight against her chest while her hands grip the radiator pipes in front of her. Smith’s body is in profile facing towards a window above the pipes, but her head is turned towards the camera. Her short dark hair frames her face and is slightly tousled. She is positioned slightly off centre, sitting to the left of the image. She occupies what appears to be an empty room with painted white brick walls, wooden floors and a radiator which extends from where she is sitting to the adjacent wall in the background. A series of horizontal lines – including the radiator pipes, the flooring and the brick work – are contrasted by the vertical lines of the pipes rising from the radiator and the vertical wooden frame of the window. The singer’s limbs and torso mirror these vertical and horizontal lines, while also introducing some soft diagonals to the composition. Light comes in through the windows creating illuminated surfaces on the left side of her slim body, while casting shadows on the right side of her face, flanks and slightly hunched back.
Mapplethorpe took this photograph in autumn 1976 in his loft apartment on Bond Street, New York City. He had been given the money to buy this loft by art collector and curator Sam Wagstaff, who was Mapplethorpe’s lover and mentor until Wagstaff’s death in 1987. Bond Street was a cobblestone side street with warehouses and garages that artists chose to occupy. The painter Brice Marden worked next door to Mapplethorpe, and the musician John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono lived nearby. Smith, who was a lifelong friend of Mapplethorpe’s, moved in with the photographer in 1976 when the lease on her own apartment expired. The pair had lived together on many occasions including a stint at the Chelsea Hotel, a New York landmark famous for its notable residents, including the singers Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin and the writer and poet Dylan Thomas.
This photograph is one of many portraits of Smith that Mapplethorpe took during their lifelong friendship (see also Tate AR00495 and AR00185). Indeed, apart from his self-portraits, Smith was Mapplethorpe’s most photographed subject. Writer Ingrid Sischy has discussed Mapplethorpe’s portraits of Smith: ‘Because these photographs capture different periods in her life they come to stand for time.’ (Sischy 1988, p.83.) Mapplethorpe’s biographer, Patricia Morrisroe, has confirmed this idea, noting that at the time this photograph was taken Smith was struggling to match the success of her first album Horses, and that she was unhappy in her relationship with musician Allen Lanier. Morrisroe states that in this particular portrait Smith resembles a ‘baby bird emerging from a cracked shell’, and that Mapplethorpe captured the singers ‘precarious state of mind’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.174).
Ingrid Sischy, ‘A Society Artist’ in Richard Marshall (ed.), Robert Mapplethorpe, London 1988, p.83.
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe, A Biography, London 1995, p.174.
Susan Mc Ateer
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.