From Patti, with love: The Church of Smith gathers at the Met to honor O’Keeffe and Stieglitz

Patti Smith. (brancusi76 via flickr)
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Daphne Carr

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Patti Smith is on a first name basis with Jackson, as in Pollock, and likewise Georgia and Alfred. "After all, I've known them all my life," she told the audience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Friday night. The crowd tittered, as they have done for every wry self-deprecation, arched shoulder, shuffle step, or awkward-turn-turned-joke she's made since winning them the '70s.

Somehow the gall it takes to say you know someone of world-historical importance who died long ago becomes Smith, lover of divinely inspired artists, holder of idiosyncratic ideals in our celebrity-scandalized, hero-free era.

Her rapt crowd of aging bohemians comes to the Met each year for Smith and her sound-life partner Lenny Kaye as they make a musical response to one of the current exhibits. Last year it was to Khubilai Khan, so she fantasized on the Orient as imagined by opium-drenched poets and their pop kin ("Puff the Magic Dragon" was played). This year she sang for Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe, a presentation of Stieglitz' personal collection of Picassos, Kandinskys, Brancusis, and Matisses, which forms the foundation of the museum's modernist holdings.

A photographer and his equally talented muse are a trope dear to Smith, forming as it does the subject of her recent and wildly popular book Just Kids, and the evening felt on the verge of tears and haunted by a lover unmentioned. But it turned out that Robert Mapplethorpe's shadow was not so long as that of another, and in the course of the event Smith even read her poem "Untitled ('Georgia O'Keeffe')," from the 1972 collection kodak, to secure the sincerity of her lifelong affinity.

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Smith came on stage carrying another book, the 832-page doorstop of letters between the Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, My Faraway One. The collection charts the course of a romance that began on a friend recommendation and ended only in death. Dozens of page-markers stuck waywardly from the book and Smith's trademark oversized shirt and men's jacket took on an absent-minded professor character. Several times she called attention to her "ugly" glasses. When the rock commenced, the spectacles came off, but since Smith switched between book, lyrics sheets, and her own lyrics with each number, there was a lot of downtime to banter and fiddle with things like her granny glasses.

Daughter Jesse Paris Smith sat at a grand piano to the left, Stieglitz photos of O'Keeffe were projected behind Smith, and Kaye sat on a chair to the right. As he's done since the '70s, Kaye backed up Smith's patter, singing, and reading, the two of them moving with sacred synchronicity, his body reacting to her every phrase like a jazz musician, his thin face and hawkish eyes focused.

The world Smith loves is always slipping away, and this evening's melancholy was focused on the death of the love letter in the electronic age. Buddy Holly's "Words of Love" was a fittingly anachronistic opener, with major key arpeggios and the banal Brill Building lyrics stripped naked in the sparseness of two instruments and thinness of Smith's upper register.

Smith then read a letter Stieglitz wrote from a still night on Lake George. His description read like a fever dream, telling O'Keeffe "The night was related to a picture of yours." The younger Smith's incidental music, written for the occasion, lent the tender letter the feel of German lieder by way of cool jazz.

Smith next selected a letter Georgia wrote from the desert that answered Stieglitz's longing with an explanation that exile and struggle were needed for her to grow as a painter. "Pissing In A River" matched the brutal truth of a loving one who needs freedom: "Should I pursue a path so twisted?/ Should I crawl defeated and gifted?"

It's no surprise that it was a letter of reunion between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe that led into "Because the Night," where Lenny stood from his chair and the audience sang along for the first of two times in the evening. (The second was for encore "People Have the Power," which Smith said was in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street protests around the world).

Smith even managed to amp up the feeling of the generally laid-back evening, a foot on her monitor, and the spirit rolled her into "Gloria." I attempted to send a text message and got snapped at by the woman next to me for sinning in the church of Patti. (The audience was, atypically for any rock show, more than half women.) Still, such fervor said something about Smith's own idolatry. I let out a chuckle when she botched the spelling of "Gloria" in the refrain. Only in the spoken cadenza did she explain she was trying to spell "Georgia" but got lost in the rhythm, then joked that she really did it to "make the people watching the livestream miserable." And sure enough, there in the balcony, a camera was beaming our experience out from the Egyptian Wing to the world. The audience laughed and shouted back that they loved her for her mistake; it only lent to the intimacy of their time together.