“THE MAPPLETHORPE PHOTO SYNTHESIZES MY PASSIONS AND WORLD-VIEW”
In 1975, Arista Records released Horses, the first rock album by New York bohemian poet Patti Smith. The stark cover photo, taken by someone named Robert Mapplethorpe, was devastatingly original. It was the most electrifying image I had ever seen of a woman of my generation. Now, two decades later, I think that it ranks in art history among a half-dozen supreme images of modern woman since the French Revolution.
I was then teaching at my first job in Vermont and turning my Yale doctoral dissertation, Sexual Personae, into a book. The Horses album cover immediately went up on my living-room wall, as if it were a holy icon. Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Patti Smith symbolized for me not only women’s new liberation but the fusion of high art and popular culture that I was searching for in my own work.
From its rebirth in the late 1960s, the organized women’s movement had been overwhelmingly hostile to rock music, which it called sexist. Patti Smith’s sudden national debut galvanized me with the hope (later proved futile) that hard rock, the revolutionary voice of the counterculture, would also be endorsed by feminism.
Smith herself emerged not from the women’s movement but from the artistic avant-garde as well as the decadent sexual underground, into which her friend and lover Mapplethorpe would plunge ever more deeply after their breakup.
Unlike many feminists, the bisexual Smith did not base her rebellion on a wholesale rejection of men. As an artist, she paid due homage to major male progenitors; she wasn’t interested in neglected foremothers or a second-rate female canon. In Mapplethorpe’s half-transvestite picture, she invokes her primary influences, from Charles Baudelaire and Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, the tormented genius of the Rolling Stones who was her idol and mine.
Before Patti Smith, women in rock had presented themselves in conventional formulas of folk singer, blues shouter, or motorcycle chick. As this photo shows, Smith’s persona was brand new. She was the first to claim both vision and authority, in the dangerously Dionysian style of another poet, Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors. Furthermore, in the competitive field of album-cover design inaugurated in 1964 with Meet the Beatles(the musicians’ dramatically shaded faces are recalled here), no female rocker had ever dominated an image in this aggressive, uncompromising way.
The Mapplethorpe photo synthesizes my passions and world-view. Shot in steely high contrast against an icy white wall, it unites austere European art films with the glamorous, ever-maligned high-fashion magazines. Rumpled, tattered, unkempt, hirsute, Smith defies the rules of femininity. Soulful, haggard and emaciated yet raffish, swaggering and seductive, she is mad saint, ephebe, dandy and troubadour, a complex woman alone and outward bound for culture war.