Interview with Patti Smith: "I look at Jeff Koons’s stuff and I’m appalled”

The veteran rocker discusses the artists who inspire her, those who do not, and what drives her photography


As a girl Patti Smith was shy about her striking looks and skinny physique until a teacher showed her pictures by El Greco, Modigliani and Soutine and soon she was posing with Picasso’s Blue Period portraits in front of her mirror. Art freed and sustained Smith to a degree that might surprise those who revere her primarily as the most unique of rock stars. In fact, unable to afford art school, Smith trained to become a school teacher of art before the experience of seeing Warhol’s first ever retrospective in Philadelphia inspired her to escape to New York in 1967, aged 20, with just $16. From moving to the notorious Chelsea Hotel with the equally young Robert Mapplethorpe, to cracking the charts in 1978 with “Because the Night” co-written with Bruce Springsteen, Smith has lived a life of absolute creativity and extraordinary diversity. She wrote a poem for Picasso when he died, was adored by Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan and her lovers have included the actor Sam Shepard, the poet and musician, Jim Carroll, Allen Lanier of the band the Blue Oyster Cult, and the guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith with whom she had two children. She first appeared on the cover of Time Out nude in London in 1971, she put out arguably the very first punk rock record “Piss Factory” in 1974, and current company includes everyone from REM lead singer Michael Stipe to the Dalai Lama. But throughout all this Smith has always found time to devote to her first love, art, whether her photography or distinctive drawings, some of which are in the collection of MoMA.

The Art Newspaper: Your “Veils” series of photographs is showing at Robert Miller…

Patti Smith: Veils are the touchstone of the show, here is a child’s garland that I shot in Moscow. Also I like to visit churches and to photograph their interiors. A lot of these pictures were taken inside churches in Spain during renovation, altar pieces veiled in plastic, I find the net they put over construction very beautiful. Some of these “veils” are more literal, some just an atmosphere.

TAN: You take Polaroids but they are then made into prints?

PS: I use a very simple Polaroid, a Land 250, which has no negative, so I get a negative made and make ten silver-prints from it. My drawings are time-consuming and intricate and if I sell them, very expensive. So I like doing photographs because I have some young collectors who don’t have a lot of money, so I try to make something nice, to please myself but also so they can obtain something that isn’t too costly.

TAN: Why do use a Polaroid?

PS: Because I’m on the road a lot with my band. Having a Polaroid I can take a picture and see it right away, that gives me a sense of accomplishment, I have something in my hand.

Also like Robert [Mapplethorpe] I don’t take 40 pictures, when we did the cover of “Horses” [Smith’s 1975 debut album] he took 12, and one of them was the record cover. But today when I do a photo shoot with somebody they want to take 400 pictures and after 24 I say to them, look, come on, we would have had “Horses” by now! I go out for a walk in a city, say Paris or Beirut, I take ten shots and each one has to have some meaning, I have to really understand the light I want, the moment I want, the image I want, then I can see it, I have it in my hand. It’s like creation, I “see that it is good”, it’s an affirmation.

TAN: That affirmation given to you by art at an early age…

PS: I can really trace my affinity with visual arts from finding discarded fashion magazines as a young girl, not my mother’s, because those magazines were too expensive for her. I was looking through other people’s trash for things to cut out and coming across issues of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue from the 1950s.

I started digging them out of the trash every month. I realised I gravitated towards certain pictures and the ones I really liked were all by Irving Penn, or Cecil Beaton. I liked the world in these magazines: they would tell you what to wear at a fox hunt, it was as far from my world as you could imagine. We were pretty poor, living in an army barracks in Philadelphia, my father worked in a factory, my mother was a waitress. When I first saw real art in person I was extremely moved that people had created these things, so I decided very early in life that was what I wanted to do.

TAN: You visited museums?

PS: We were too poor for that, we went one time in my whole childhood to an art museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was 12 and it was life changing. I was beguiled by Picasso.

TAN: When you started living with Mapplethorpe neither of you were taking photographs?

PS: No, we spent the whole time drawing, we were just 20, we both put language in our drawings. I read William Blake as a child and I always liked the idea of the handwriting as art—poetry, handwriting, the song and the image all together as one. I studied him very young, copying his writing, trying to make little books as he did.

TAN: Did you ever paint?

PS: Well I did, but if I have one regret in my life it’s that I never really pursued painting. I have a whole big roll of finest Belgian canvas, I look at it every day, I’ve had that for ten years and keep looking at it.

I spent a lot of time with Larry Poons and Brice Marden was a good friend of mine, I must have met him back in 1970. And they influenced me in terms of their work ethic, seeing a painter work with these vats of paint, huge canvases, seeing them working. For me going to visit William Burroughs and seeing him drink Methadone and nod-out was not so interesting, but seeing him working on something, typing away non-stop, was exciting.

TAN: You have known very creative people and very destructive ones…

PS: I’m less snobby about this now but I used to feel people who had the calling of being artists were extra-special, that this is a gift that should be cherished, so it pained me to see people throw it away.

TAN: One could draw parallels between your hand and Beuys.

PS: In the late 1960s I was doing fairly sophisticated drawings for a 21-year-old and I was in Paris with my portfolio, I was broke and trying to sell something and I saw a drawing in a gallery window that looked just like mine. So I went in there very confidently and there was this elegant woman who was quite amused by me, I said: “Hey I’ve got some drawings here as good as that guy in the window.” And so she looked at my drawings and actually thought they were very good, she said: “You’ve done your homework, you’ve been studying Twombly, the man in the window.” And I said I’ve never heard of this guy. I mean I know that I was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, I copied him, I dressed like him, I know when someone’s a strong influence, and I’d never seen Twombly. Funnily, those drawings I did in Paris in 1969, the Pompidou bought them so they’ve returned to that city. The woman who looked at those drawings was Ileana Sonnabend.

TAN: Do you get the chance to follow much contemporary art?

PS: If I have time I’m more likely to go to the opera than schlepping round the galleries. Also a lot of things I see lack soul, they might be clever, or well done, but it’s like the difference between listening to Theola Kilgore or one of the great R&B singers then having to listen to Britney Spears. Somebody like Jeff Koons I think is just litter upon the earth, I look at his stuff and I’m appalled, I can’t access where these people are coming from.

TAN: Though it’s theoretically in a direct line from Duchamp.

PS: Duchamp I can look at and I see poetry and intellect, I don’t see this “cleverness”. I’m not interested in just commentary or humour. For me art isn’t just commentary, maybe I look at art in the old fashioned way, to me art should take us to a place we have never been, to see something we’ve never seen. I can’t look at a Koons giant dog and be moved.

TAN: But he is trying to be genuinely populist.

PS: Look, let the populace be “populist”. To have to try to be “populist” is pathetic, that is not what we should be trying to do with art. I find Koons’s work especially vile, to go into Versailles and have to look at his silliness all through that magnificent building. By contrast I recently helped organise a show in Florence combining Michelangelo’s work and Robert’s photographs of nudes and of sculpture, and I do see some kind of relationship.

TAN: Do you collect at all?

PS: I don’t really have the money to collect art, if I did I would like a nice little Lee Krasner painting, a little Yves Klein. I do actually have a few nice photographs, two Brancusi photographs. One is really exquisite, I sold a lot of drawings in Paris and instead of taking money I got this photograph. Brancusi took it in Steichen’s garden of his own piece of sculpture, because Steichen was teaching him how to print at the time. I mostly have manuscripts, I have H.P. Lovecraft letters, I have a typed postcard of Herman Hesse, I have the first edition of Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” and I have his carte de visite, I have a few nice drawings of Robert’s.

TAN: Do you have these manuscripts framed as art?

PS: No, I have one manuscript poem in Jim Morrison’s hand that Michael Stipe gave me for my 50th birthday and that’s in a frame because he presented it to me that way. But my other manuscripts I keep in portfolios because I like to touch them. I have a Glenn Gould and something signed by Maria Callas. Of course I left rock’n’roll just as I was starting to make money but if I had stuck around through the 1980s I might have been able to buy a Krasner.

TAN: You sing that Jackson Pollock was a “rock’n’roll nigger”, another song is called Blue Poles, rather unusual rock references.

PS: It’s because I came to rock music organically. I was hoping to be an artist in 1964, I didn’t record “Horses” until 1975, all those years I was hoping to be an artist and poet, I didn’t really start working on songs until 1970. My connection was all through Bob Dylan and some mergence of poetry and image. It just happened organically from doing poetry readings, then reading a poem was not enough, it did not satisfy my physical need to express myself, it’s like if Jackson Pollock had to paint Easter eggs. There was something that drove me, for me being in rock’n’roll is a lot more mystical or mystifying than art.

I think that I’m flawed in everything that I do. But it seems like the thing I really know how to do is perform, I have to struggle with my poems, with my lyrics, with my drawings, I have to struggle with everything I do except performing.

Going back to Koons, maybe he’s just a more generous artist than I am, if he is indeed serving the people with his work, and that is his impulse, but for me that is not my impulse. I don’t look to serve the people through art, I serve the gods of Art. I sing rock’n’roll to serve the people.