Patti Smith: Author, performer, artist, friend of the Archives

By the Archives
November 19, 2010
Photos from an Evening of Spoken Word and Song with Patti Smith, February 1, 2008
An Evening of Spoken Word and Song with Patti Smith, an intimate performance of songs and readings for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington, D.C., February 1, 2008.

Yesterday’s paper brought the wonderful announcement that Patti Smith has won the National Book Award in the non-fiction category for her beautifully poetic memoir Just Kids. For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, I highly recommend it. At its heart, the book presents a frank and deeply moving account of Smith’s relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe—from their first accidental yet fated meeting in 1967 until his death in 1989. But it’s much more than a story of love and friendship. It also provides the reader with an intimate glimpse into the creative evolution of two major American artists whose work continues to challenge and inspire.

In 2008, Patti Smith presented a very special performance in Washington, D.C. to benefit the Archives of American Art. She read from a series of artists’ love letters in our collection interspersed with some songs. Like always, she filled the room with joy and gave new life to the words of these artists. We’ve made available a sound clip from that evening of Patti reading a letter from Joan Mitchell to Michael Goldberg (a transcript is available at the end of this post).

John W. Smith
Director, Archives of American Art

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Transcript of Patti Smith reading a letter from Joan Mitchell to Michael Goldberg

PATTI SMITH: I love Joan Mitchell, she was so great. You know, I mean, she just. She was like Joan Miró. With, she just knew how to smoke a cigarette. And, I know smoking is bad for you. I don’t smoke, personally. But, you know there is something like a broad, like Bette Davis, or, these certain broads just know how to smoke a cigarette. And, I know we are not supposed to admire it. But, it’s just an aesthetic thing. But uhm, anyway, she was quite a cool-looking smoker. And, uh. And the other thing. Oh, anyways. Sorry.

So this is Joan talking:

Hey Beautiful,

Just got your letter. Oh, for just a chance to love you, could I love you. Can’t figure out whether I like the radio on or off, j’taime. God, you mean a lot to me. It’s never been like this before in my life. I clean the studio, made the bed. I like it so much. The white palette things are sort of in the middle of the room. I can’t paint against the wall, like you had them. I’m using the paint off your palette. I feel so close to you. I’m still working on that black and green thing, so slow and it’s so big and I started a couple of little ones, and, uh, nothing much. I keep thinking we could live here together but, well, I mustn’t think at all. I drank a bottle of bourbon with Philip Guston the other night and we were talking about painting. We don’t agree at all. But he was nice. He doesn’t like Gorky or de Kooning. He likes Mondrian and more an intellectual or classic or whatever you call them things. I would like to paint a million black lines all crossing like Max Beckmann. The hell with classicism. This is only momentary, beautiful, agony, and not in any garden. I’m drinking the beer you left me on the windowsill, and I’m kissing you. This I do all the time. How long will it be? I can understand you not being able to draw. It sounds impossible. I sometimes wonder how in the hell you painted three weeks ago. It’s over that now. I counted weeks last fall and we were laughing. I hate Tuesdays now and the weeks start and end with it. I sat in the park this morning and you were with me, and we talked about things that we had never mentioned, and much we had, and I held your hand. Could we make it over again in a different way? You know there is a woman across the way who’s always looking out the window. I’m sick of looking at her. I put all, all four lights over the curtains and I make coffee often. Well, I’ll sleep now. Maybe. Used to be so easy. Now the cot is filled with you. Save your drawing ideas. Someday we’ll line a room with canvas, and you’ll have an enormous brush and lots of black and white and cadmium red deep, and you’ll paint them all at once, and I’ll have my arms around you. Good night. I love ya.

Some of these letters preserve like little bits of history. Things we’ve forgotten or you know, gone out of the public consciousness. But little bits of history and artists, you know, were blooming or, you know, were well known in their time and against sort of forgotten. But letters, one of the reasons I wanted to support the Archives is letters are so beautiful. The paper, you know, the handwriting, the little sketches, the emotion. I mean, I know they can be burned, but they can’t be deleted. So.


Thanks for sharing this post. As a lover of poetry, music, and theater I find them as escape from the world of noise all together.

Love Patti Smith, sounds like an interesting read.