PSALM OF ASCENT
Patti Smith at the Warhol Museum
By David Greenberg
all art seems pointless
one blurring photograph
an elusive face…[i]
Patti Smith the rock icon remains to most in the Art World a curiosity at best.
For many critics and dealers, artists are expected to transform themselves into one-trick ponies, find their riff, stick to it and churn out slight variations on the same theme. But there is a deeper tradition in which Smith tries to labor. Her practice can be traced back to figures like William Blake (himself a poet, songwriter and visual artist), Antonin Artaud (whose drawings are now finally achieving some of the critical attention that has been lavished upon his visionary essays) and, of course, the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Within the context of this type of spiritual exploration, Patti Smith moves through various disciplines with a fierce energy. She becomes an wanna-be alchemist, merging the visual, written and musical arts into a singular vision, committed to what Rimbaud referred to as the process of becoming a seer. (Or maybe she’s just looking for some free money.)
A portrait of Patti Smith as a young artist would inevitably begin with the physical nature of the written word. Handwriting, and specifically calligraphy, held an alluring presence early on for Patti. Remembering a reproduction of The Declaration of Independence acquired on a third-grade class trip to the Franklin Institute in 1955, she explains: “The audacious grace of the script intrigued me and I spent hours as a child copying it out—the image of the word, the signatures—on long paper scrolls. I imagined that in mastering each bold, significant hand, I would capture some of the spirit of the author, of Independence itself.”[ii] This formative relationship to language remains at the core of Smith’s creative process. There is usually a sense of channeling spirits in her poems, songs and, especially her drawings. The written word serves as a catalyst for creative energy. And more importantly, it the physical image of language that both informs and inspires her work.
Moving to New York City in the late 1960s, Patti Smith originally intended on becoming a painter. Some of her work from this period has a strong kinship to deKooning’s estranged women from the late 1950s and early 60s, but ultimately the paintings suffer from the heavy weight of their own historical alliance. The abstracted figurative work of the Dutch-American master would prove to be somewhat of a dead-end, or rather, an end in itself. Her struggle with painting would eventually lead her to a more expansive process. “Standing before large sheets of paper,” the artist recounts, “frustrated with the image I’d draw words instead—rhythms that ran off the page onto the plaster.”[iii] Her frustrations as a painter fueled a desire to expand the physical and psychic limitations of art. The drawings evolved into poems, the poems into incantations and songs. All of this energy would eventually find its way onto the stage. The refinement of her process as a visual artist led Smith to performance. Yet, she would always find her way back to drawing.
In another way, this type of self-portraiture seems to share an alliance with Antonin Artaud, who considered his own drawings to be spells. Like Smith, Artaud used the written word as a springboard for his portraits, many times creating a new language, which emblazoned the image with ritualistic markings. The physical execution of these spells was at times violent—he frequently burned holes into the drawings with lit cigarettes. (And there is speculation about his propensity towards employing body fluids—his own and perhaps others’.) In “The Human Face,” written for a presentation of his Portraits and Drawings at the Galerie Pierre, July 4—20, 1947, Artaud elaborates on his ideology and process:
The human face
in effect carries a kind
of perpetual death
from which it’s really up to the painter
to save it
by giving back
his own particular features…
I’m still not sure
of the limits by which the
body of my human
Self may be stopped….
there’ll be trouble for those who
consider [my drawings]
works of art, [for]…I haven’t sought
to take great pains with my lines….
And in this way you have to accept
these drawings in the
barbarism and disorder
graphic manner ‘which is
never preoccupied with
art’ but with the sincerity
and the spontaneity
of the stroke.[iv]
While Artaud’s psychological motivation for drawing may have differed greatly from Smith’s, his visual impact as an artist can been seen as sharing a unique affinity with that of her drawings. For like in Patti Smith’s best works, Artaud’s drawings and portraits are also something more than just art.
With Self Portrait, Patti also expresses her struggle with drawing in simple human terms. She opens up a whole other area of consciousness by giving voice to a child-like frustration. The scrawl continues: “I got pissed I gave up art yet here I am again.” It is a sentiment that almost reads like a blue print for what was once called Punk—and, in fact, it is this adolescent rebellious energy, which spills, forth in written form that was simultaneously evolving for Patti Smith as a musician. Rock and Roll—specifically Punk Rock—provided a forum for Smith’s language to expand. Punk also offered another expanse for Patti’s growing Pantheon of Spirits. And a new musical vocabulary for the Youth of America.
Patti Smith derives certain psuedo-mystical energy from specific figures she has thrown together, re-contextualized, and re-mythologized—a kind of parallel Universe where Jackson Pollock rubs shoulders with Brian Jones and Maria Callas swoons over Gregory Corso, all under the seemingly disinterested gaze of William S. Burroughs. No figure is more prominent in this Pantheon than Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud. In language, style and myth, Arthur Rimbaud became the major hero for Smith. She explains: “You see I really loved Rimbaud, loved him so much and I devoted so much of my girlish daydreams over him. But it didn’t really matter because you never got a guy anyway then. If you’re 15 or 16 and you can’t get the boy you want and you just have to daydream about him all the time, what’s the difference if he’s a dead poet or a senior. What’s the difference? If you don’t get either one of them anyway, you’re just projecting one of them.”[v]
The discovery of Rimbaud has become infused with Patti Smith’s own personal mythology. She has recounted the story numerous times. Most succinctly she told Ingrid Sischy: “I found him in a Philadelphia bus depot when I was sixteen. I remember seeing a copy of Illuminations for sale on a table of used books. Of course, ‘illuminations’ is a great word, but what I was really taken by was the cover. It was a beautiful picture of Rimbaud. That’s why I got the book.”[vi]
As that little girl with a crush developed into a woman and an artist, she would turn to drawing to try and capture some of her metaphysical ex-boyfriend’s spirit. Elaborating on the process begun as a child, copying the calligraphy of The Declaration of Independence, she would attempt a form of spirit channeling through the image of language and the physical form of Rimbaud.
And it started with his face.
Rimbaud’s spirit forged its way into much of Smith’s work in the early seventies. Portrait of Rimbaud, 1973 is perhaps Smith’s most realized visual representation of the young poet’s disturbing presence. Her usually raw and frenzied draftsmanship is more refined and delicate in this portrait. The line Careful Rimbaud, offered as an alternate title, suggests the precision and economy of line and, of course, the care involved. But it also serves as another commentary on the actual process. The hair, brow, lips, and nose all seem to be composed of script painstakingly copied by Smith from some ancient text. And while the figure is clearly an image, the drawing seems to serve as some form of poem. The lines of the portrait spill out from the centralized image of the eyes—two pale blue ghosts executed in colored pencil. There is something both haunting and semi-religious about the portrait. Something devotional. Smith comes close to creating some sort of relic. An icon of Rimbaud that seems to want to bleed or cry. An illuminated spirit of sorts.
On April 5, 1997, I was witness to the ascension of Allen Ginsberg from mortal poet to Spirit. Along with intimate friends and lovers, including Peter Orlovsky and Peter Hale, Patti Smith sat with her companion Oliver Ray and me, around Allen’s deathbed to keep vigil. We were all participants in his transformation.
Years before, I had made a solemn vow to Allen to be with him at the very end. He in turn, lectured me thoroughly on the proper Buddhist meditation practice for such a particular event. Although I was a good student of Buddhism, with both Allen and Gelek Rinpoche as my teachers, my heritage as a Jew provided me with ultimate guidance. Unfortunately, Allen Ginsberg’s own Jewish identity was forever burdened by his parents’ political leanings. And Allen was also in a coma for about a day leading up to his death. The traditional Prayer For Divine Help includes the lines: “G-d of my fathers….Bestow upon me the peace which is the portion of the righteous….be with my loved ones whose souls are bound with mine. Into thy hand I entrust my spirit.[vii] Allen was unable to recite these words. Yet, I believe, at the moment of his passing, he was attempting to recite the Sh’ma: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is Our G-d, the Lord is One.
At approximately 3A.M. Irwin Allen Ginsberg was ready to leave this material realm. Oliver was the first to notice: “Look,” he cried out, “his eyes are opening.” We all gathered in closer. Allen’s eyes were indeed slowly rolling under their delicate lids. Eventually his lashes began to flutter and tiny slivers of white iris appeared. He was waking up. He was shaking off his karma coma. Miraculously, his pupils rolled back down into place and Allen’s whole body began vibrating. He was attempting to sit up, to get up out of bed, raise his one arm, forefinger extended, and address his disciples one last time. But alas, his cancer-ravaged body was not as strong as his constitution, and Allen could only manage to lift his head up slightly off his pillow.
Initially, the mood was dark. Allen’s deep primordial brown eyes searched for a familiar face. I knew he was confused, however, his frightened state seemed somewhat shocking. Just days before, in our last conversation, Allen told me he had thought he would be afraid of death, but instead felt exhilarated. Now it seemed, my worst fears for him were coming to fruition. Allen looked terrified.
Just when he was needed most, Peter Orlovsky addressed his love. Both he and Allen had sworn a solemn oath to assist each other into Heaven in 1955. Peter was keeping up his end of their vows. He looked into Allen’s eyes. This seemed to pacify him. Yet Allen was not done. His head moved about the room, his focus ever shifting. At one brief instance, I locked eyes with him. I remembered to, as the Buddhists would advise, let him go, be non-attached to his physical presence. I concentrated on my outward breath and encouraged Allen to leave, with a smile and a subtle nod. His response has been interpreted many ways by all that were present, but there is no argument as to what he actually did: Allen began to speak.
Once again, the physical limitations of his illness restricted Allen. He was able to convey only the most minimal of verbal communication. His sensuous, Semitic lips, framed by his healthy white beard, pursed. His jaw dropped and he began to intone what at first seemed like his Buddhist mantra: AH. This, of course, is the official story as relayed by his handlers at the Ginsberg Trust. Some of who would also have us believe that Allen’s eyes were empty, lifeless, and his movements were merely those of a dying man, his vocal pronouncement simply the side-effect of the so-called death rattle. These same people have conspired to cleanse Allen Ginsberg’s legacy, white-washing his homosexuality and radical politics, conveniently reducing his prophetic works to silk-screened lines on T-shirts which are available at allenginsberg.org for a nominal fee.
But there are those among us who saw and heard something remarkable, and stand in direct opposition to the historical embellishments and outright lies spread by individuals blinded by greed and their own personal ambition. And while in my heart of hearts I heard Allen recite the first word of the Sh’ma, Patti Smith offered her own more liberal elucidation. She pointed out that Allen was able to speak to each of us in our own language, much as the Bible recounts a time when all of humanity was able to communicate before the fall of the Tower of Babel with a common language.
After Allen breathed out his last breath, a Para nirvana event took place in his loft. The next twenty-four hours were equal parts art happening, poetry reading, Buddhist group meditation and Shiva sitting, the Jewish mourning ritual. Painters Sandro Chia, Donald Baechler, Roy Lichenstein, Larry Rivers and George Condo all paid visits. The composer Philip Glass, a close friend of Allen’s, rushed over as soon as he heard the news. Gregory Corso, who had left only two hours before Allen’s parting, had asked me to call him if “anything happened.” After I summoned him, he taxied across town to be with his dear departed friend, posing for photographs, attempting his own version of Jacque-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates.
At one point I suggested we move away a bit from Allen’s body and read some of his poems aloud. Oliver Ray joined me, along with Hal Willner, Allen’s friend and producer, in a back room of Allen’s loft. Meanwhile, a constant wave of chanting wafted through the room graciously provided by a team of Tibetan monks. Patti called them soul doctors. The monks, following Buddhist precepts, escorted Allen’s spiritual body away from the human vessel, which had been its home for seventy years. Throughout this flurry of religious and poetic activity, Patti continued to sit quietly by Allen’s feet, carefully composing both a poem and a portrait. Allen had officially delegated George Condo as death portraitist. Turning his gaze from the great poet’s deathbed to his canvas, George jokingly complained that Allen wouldn’t stop moving.
At first, I figured there was enough Art being made and my skills as draftsman were of little use to anyone. And so I started to write a poem. Yet, I still felt compelled to draw Allen’s beautiful face one last time. He looked more peaceful than I had ever remembered seeing him in sleep. The weight of the world had been lifted from his skinny queer shoulders. From somewhere I found a blue magic marker and attempted the most concise drawing I could muster up. I constructed a set of simple lines to form the image of his lifeless face in my little notebook. There was a religious glow to our proceedings. Each of us performed our earthly tasks as both friends and fellow artists in devotion to the Spirit of Allen Ginsberg.
Years later, I realized that I had joined in a ghost dance for Allen. And on that sunny day in April, however we felt individually, we were abundantly aware of the overwhelming significance of our teacher’s passing. For along with Allen Ginsberg, so too died the Captain of the great U.S. battleship for peace and spiritual enlightenment known as the Beat Generation.
While her career as a performer has ever evolved from underground legend to pop star to obscurity, retirement, cult figure, and back again, Patti Smith the artist has remained steadfast and committed. She has increasingly associated the process of making art to that of a ritual. In her essay “Drawing” Smith offers detailed accounts of her art-making process. The descriptions reflect a meditative, monk-like approach to particular idiosyncratic drawing methods, from preparation to inspiration and execution. In one particular passage she calls upon the spirit of Robert Mapplethorpe—who was an integral part of her life as a collaborator, champion of her work, and great friend. Her ritual begins with the familiar process of copying a language: “I sat in the changing light in the corner of the room, copying out the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, hoping something would be revealed in the process… Inspired I pulled out my pencils and pad of clay coat (and) made several small drawings in a manner I learned from Robert–a field composed of a single word—a simple phrase repeated, entwining. And then, as was my wont, more elaborate phrases snaking back to a single line.”[viii] Again we find Smith confronting the physicality of handwriting, the image of language.
Over the years, she would create numerous variations on this type of field drawing. Peace and Noise #1, 1997, is a recent example. Composed of lyric fragments from her album Peace and Noise, the drawing has an expanding, organic feel, with words and phrases forming petal-like shapes that bloom out from a gestured center. Certain letters bend and elongate around the edge of each cluster, leading to the appearance of some kind of magnetic pull. At first glance, this type of drawing seems to have some direct correlation to the work of Cy Twombly, though ultimately, the similarities are only superficial. While both artists employ a scribbled, gestured script in their compositions, the formal concerns are completely different. Twombly’s focus is diffused. His main goal is to distribute gestured moments across a field in order to achieve an overall balanced state. Smith, however, tightens her focus. Her gestures are deliberately frenzied and awkward. The words themselves are apart of an energy force field. New combinations of phrases and new meanings are stretched out across the field. For Twombly, handwriting is a means to an end. For Smith, it is the process of manipulating the physical characteristics of the written language that serves her more spiritual and poetic goals. While she is concerned with aesthetics, the ultimate beauty of her drawings lies outside of form. She is not, like Twombly, aiming for a soft mood. Instead, she struggles to transform the written language itself, creating unforeseen permutations—an alchemy of word and gesture.
In the early days of September 2001, Patti was full of renewed energy. Work was pouring out of her at an astonishing rate. She began a series of large drawings that portrayed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which she would later title as Cross Sections. In each piece or section, the figure of Jesus moves in what appears to be a vaporous whirlwind of dust. With graphite marks, Smith conveys the moment of the Spirit of Jesus’ ascent towards his heavenly Father. Each variation appears as a visual documentation of a particular vision. They seem to be surrogate eyewitness accounts of a great figure’s moment of passing. Every drawing has the same basic elements: the body of Christ, the cross and the whirlwind effect. Yet, each conveys some unique and mysterious vision all its own, new renditions, which echo a familiar verse first chanted by Allen Ginsberg, who saw:
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
And rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.[ix]
Like many of the lines in Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Smith’s Cross Sections seem to tap psychically into the flow of a collective consciousness present in places like Golgotha, Guerica, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. These refined works of art illuminate a potential elevation towards a greater Spirit from the utter depths of human suffering.
Clearly inspired, Patti kept at her work, unaware of what was about to occur literally down the street from her home in Downtown New York City—just a few short days away.
“Awoke to the sound of a passenger plane singing its end,” Patti Smith begins in “Twin Death”—her requiem for a nation. In the terse and somber prose poem, she explains her own personal story, which echoes so many on that horrible day. “Awoke to the sensation of spirits—a purgatory of souls ascending the billowing smoke and ash filling the sky at the base of my street.”[x] After the initial shock, Patti searches, like so many of us, for answers and some kind of appropriate human response. “What portrait could I paint,” she asks herself, “What lines might I draw?”[xi]
The terror of 9-11 brought into focus many of the issues Patti had grappled with since she first moved to New York City to be an artist, to be somebody. She sees a businessman with shoes covered in white dust and thinks of Picasso’s Guernica, and “how he translated his pain and horror into a monumental work that moves and teaches us to this day.”[xii] The concept of an epic response to such an enormous event temporarily stifles Patti Smith. In the poem, she is left, unable to draw, with two blank pieces of paper as her tribute to the World Trade Center and all of those who lost their lives. But the images of Ground Zero and the ensuing world war would prove to be far too pressing for Smith to simply observe quietly. A more elaborate response was desperately needed.
Beginning with a silk-screened image of the Towers’ cathedral-like ruins that served as a sort of guide, Patti began copying out various passages from religious texts. She included a verse from the Qu’ran and passages from a somewhat obscure book published in 1937 and translated by the poet Edmond Bordeaux Szekely entitled The Essence Gospel of Peace. She also spent painstaking hours copying out names of crewmembers, passengers and terrorists from the fateful flights of 9-11, incorporating them into these large drawings. By employing a set field, Smith was able to sharpen the focus of her expressive handwriting. Her pictorial goal was clearer than it had ever been, she was reconstructing, in her own modest way, the Tower of Babel, as a tribute to communication—the breakdown of which, the artist believes is the root cause of our current violent situation.
The Torah speaks of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, Chapter XI:
And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech….And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. And the Lord said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left to build the city. Therefore was the name of it called Babel.[xiii]
One can interpret this chapter as a further development of the theme of the Divine ideal: One Humanity united by a universal language. The diversity of tongue can be seen as an everlasting source of constant misunderstanding leading directly to hostility, conflict and war. The Rabbis maintain the assertion that the Babylonian builders of this greatest of all ziggurats, were not only intending to scale Heaven, as many of the Mesopotamian temple-towers attempted, but in fact, to wage war against G-d. While Jewish legend relays stories of the builders’ utter inhumanity. It is often told that during the course of the Tower’s construction, the builders paid no mind to a fellow worker who fell to his death, yet these same men grieved, and even shed tears, at the sight of a falling brick. Such avaricious an undertaking, it is said, provoked Divine punishment.
Patti Smith seeks not retribution or blind patriotism in her monument drawings. Instead, she searches for an appropriate response as an artist to the utter horror of our current terror-filled world. Her delicate, hand-made towers yearn to praise compassion and understanding. And while the task at hand is a vast undertaking, she meets her challenge willingly, one word and one gentle stroke at a time.