It is easy to get caught up in the story of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith and lose sight of the art itself. They are, after all, just about irresistible: Young poor poet meets young poor visual artist, and they live in crummy cold cheap apartments, subsisting on air and art and day jobs, their lives intertwined in a thousand ways, each the muse of the other. Both eventually get involved with other people and become famous, but they stay very close, and neither sells out; he dies much too young, and so does her husband; she carries the fire for all of them thereafter. It’s pretty nearly a 1970 remake of La Bohème, and — especially as downtown New York has no more apartments like that — it feels, especially to young people, as though it may as well have been a century ago.
The thing is, Mapplethorpe’s actual art holds up beautifully, as a very large new book, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive, serves to remind us. (Not least with an essay by Smith herself, who has showed us in a pair of memoirs that she writes lovely prose.) They were 20 when they met, and what comes through both in her reminiscence and in the images is how thoroughly fertile an art-maker he was. He drew, he assembled, he collaged, he took Polaroid pictures, he made things out of wood — and sometimes he did all of those things in one piece. He was still figuring his art out in these early years; the true mastery came a little later, as he became principally a photographer and got more confident in his subject matter (and in his sexuality, which often turned out to be his subject matter). But even in small things he made early on, like his Polaroid portraits or a tie rack he made for Smith as a Christmas present (see slide No. 3), there is refinement, care, craftsmanship. Click through to see 23 images from the book and its accompanying exhibition at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. (A related documentary titled Mapplethorpe: Look At the Pictures will air on HBO on April 4.) Smith will be at Rizzoli, 1133 Broadway, on Tuesday night at six to talk about the book.