Before I started reading Just Kids I didn’t know much more about Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe than that Patti Smith was a musician and Robert Mapplethorpe was an artist of some sort. Looking up his artwork later, I realized I did recognize Mapplethorpe’s flower photos. I didn’t, however, know anything about their personal lives or their relationship.
Just Kids, which was first published a few years ago, is Smith’s story about her friendship with Robert and their growth as artists, both together and independently. It’s a sweet, sometimes confusing, complicated, and beautiful story of friendship. Theirs is a sometimes romantic, often co-dependent sort of relationship. They live together. They make art together. They’re a couple. Robert explores the fact that he’s gay. They live together. They sleep with other people. They are, above all, fiercely devoted together.
Patti and Robert meet in New York, both in their early twenties, in the late 1960s. They want to make art but they also need to survive. At one point they make a pact that they will take care of each other until they are both strong enough to be alone. It’s a promise they keep although their relationship takes various twists over the years as they both chase art and success.
This illustrated edition is a new publication and I hadn’t read the book before. Both Patti and Robert worked in visual mediums and it’s hard to imagine the book without these glimpses of their sketches and artwork. The book has some of Robert’s photographs, many of which feature Patti. There are also photos of the two together and this gives an extra intimate glimpse into their friendship.
The story is peppered with many famous names and their time living at the Chelsea Hotel is especially fascinating as it gives a glimpse of the artist circle of New York in the seventies. As the author and one of the primary characters, Patti doesn’t give away too much. The story is intimate and yet not. Overall the effect is respectful rather than withholding. Her love for Robert is evident throughout and I think it would have felt wrong if she had given us too much of certain details. As it is, the story is interesting and I enjoyed reading, even if I didn’t know much of the background to begin with.