Patti Smith may have almost single-handedly launched punk rock in the late '70s, but she originally wanted to be a visual artist. "She really studied as an artist and moved to New York to become a painter," says Paola Morsiani, associate curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum. "Her work wasn't accepted. It came across as too psychological, too subjective."
The time was the late '60s, and the art world was championing minimalism. And while Smith's early works were minimal in form and use of materials, they vibrated with emotion -- maybe a little too loudly for her peers. Frustrated with the narrowness of the New York art scene, Smith channeled her energy into poetry and rock music -- mediums that didn't turn her away for being overly passionate. But she always returned to drawing.
Smith's artwork is finally getting the attention it deserves with "Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith," the first comprehensive exhibition of her drawings. The show was organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; Houston is the exhibit's first stop after the Warhol. The show's 85 works, which were created between 1967 and 2002, range from a stark portrait of French poet Arthur Rimbaud to self-portraits to a startling series of drawings and silk-screens depicting the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Most works incorporate poetry, with obsessively scrawled words and phrases that, at a distance, seem like simple lines. Upon closer inspection, new meanings spill from the images. The technique is perhaps most effective in Smith's works evoking the September 11 terrorist attacks. She combines imagery of the destroyed towers with intricate layers of handwritten text. "The calligraphy is very, very fluid, almost Islamic-looking," says Morsiani, "and the text is based on religious sources, including the Gospel of Peace of the Essenes and also the Koran. It represents how religions coexist, then fall apart."
In fact, the inspiration for the South Tower series came from a newspaper photograph of ground zero. It reminded Smith of Pieter Bruegel's Tower of Babel. Many works ooze seriousness and spirituality, dwelling on themes of loss and rebirth, but Smith does manage a few sucker punches. Surprising for their dark humor are two 9/11 pieces; one is titled How I blew my top, and the other, South Tower Birthday Cake.
Smith is personally involved in the way her work is presented in the traveling exhibition. For the Houston show, she decided to add in a selection of black-and-white silver gelatin prints made from Polaroids. "Each venue develops a dialogue with Patti," says Morsiani, "so we have this special present in the show."
Perhaps the most special present, though, is Smith's live performance this weekend. Against a backdrop of images, the show mixes Smith's music and poetry to create a charged, emotional experience. In typical style, at Smith's recent performance in Pittsburgh, which coincided with the opening of "Strange Messenger" at the Warhol, she embraced disaster and conjured her own pain for a kind of collective catharsis. Morsiani was there. "It happened a few days after she lost her mother, so it was very emotional," she says. "The first background image was a beautiful picture" of her mother.