ICA displays tunesmith’s pictorial prowess

Patti Smith

“Untitled” (1997) by Patti Smith

Patti Smith has never been one to compartmentalize artistic expression. Since her arrival onto New York City’s downtown scene in the late 1960s, she’s deftly moved between visual art and poetry, spoken word and music.

Granted, it’s Smith’s music and poetry that have garnered the most critical praise. But she’s also been drawing—during her long-time friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, after her landmark 1975 album, “Horses,” and through to the present day.

Her impressive array of drawings, silkscreens and photographs form the exhibit “Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith.” This collection will be on display through Dec. 7 at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

John Smith (no relation) curated the original exhibit for Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, and said that Patti Smith is not unlike his museum’s namesake.

“What was interesting to me is the similarity they share in their ability to use all of these different mediums to communicate their ideas, their thoughts and their talents,” he said. “Each are equally powerful.”

Though her work in the exhibit is visual, text figures prominently.

“It’s language or the look of language that really is the form of them, of the drawings,” said Smith.

Each piece in Smith’s show bears her indelible mark of toughness and femininity, with a voice that is unmistakably hers.

“Patti Smith is Patti Smith, no matter what medium she’s working in,” said ICA associate curator Bennett Simpson.

“Strange Messenger” began as a retrospective in 2000, but the scope of the project shifted when Patti responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks through a series of intensely personal drawings of the fallen South Tower.

Said Simpson, “Patti sort of rethought everything. Like so many people, she had a profound reaction to it.”

The exhibit also features a series of black and white photos of everyday objects, shot after her 9/11 series. Specifically for the ICA show, Smith shot four photos of a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a document she admires for its detailed calligraphy.

Smith’s show at the ICA may resonate with patrons, since the famously controversial Mapplethorpe exhibition opened here in 1989. At that time, Smith wrote text to accompany her friend’s work.

Said John Smith, “What she’s known as is an artist with real integrity and a real gift and a really strong set of beliefs.”

Originally published on October 2, 2003