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Gagosian Quarterly

Winter 2017 Issue

Devotion

Patti Smith takes us on a journey to visit the grave of French writer and activist Simone Weil.

Photo by Patti Smith

Photo by Patti Smith

Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a writer, performer, and visual artist. Her memoir Just Kids received a National Book Award, and her recent book M Train is a critically acclaimed New York Times best seller. Smith was awarded the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Republic. Her seminal album Horses has been hailed as one of the top one hundred albums of all time, and in 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Smith lives in New York City.

Last spring was for me the season of Simone Weil. I read two biographies while simultaneously reading her work, beginning with Gravity and Grace. Simone Weil was a French visionary and activist. During World War II, owing to her Jewish heritage, she was unable to stay in Paris or join the French resistance movement and was obliged to contribute to the war effort in England. Suffering consumption, she was forced to enter a sanitarium in Ashford, some sixty miles from London. It was there that she died, never seeing her mother’s face or her beloved France again, and was buried in the cemetery not far from the train station. I could not help but feel sadness that her body could not be returned to her own country. I read the account of her death while in Southern France. That afternoon I found a patch of lavender. I thought of her in her patient’s bed, with no hope of recovery or return to her homeland. I imagined how much a small bouquet, with its intoxicating fragrance, would have meant to her at that moment. Small things with incalculable worth.

Impulsively I wrapped some of the lavender in a handkerchief and decided to find her grave and place a bit of France where she was buried. Visiting the resting places of people I never knew, but whose work has guided or inspired me, is one of my missions while traveling. I travel a lot, for work, literary conferences, exhibitions, and touring with my band. Not being very social, I find myself drawn to obscure cafés and cemeteries. The café to think; the cemetery to thank. In this manner I was able to thank Hermann Hesse for writing The Glass Bead Game. Sylvia Plath for her poems. Genet for The Thief’s Journal. Dag Hammarskjöld for his quest for peace. Often, after simple meditation, I take a photograph, as a remembrance, as a relic.

And so, armed with a bundle of lavender, I left France, taking a train to London. At St. Pancras International I boarded another train to Ashford, to find Simone Weil’s grave. As we passed endless row houses and a somewhat lifeless landscape, I noticed the date on my ticket, June 15, the birthday of my late brother Todd. His only child is a daughter named Simone. I immediately brightened. Only good could happen on such an auspicious day.

Arriving, I found a coffee stand, then looked for a taxi. The sky was deepening and there was a strong chill in the air. I removed my camera and watch cap from my suitcase. The taxi ride took about fifteen minutes and I was dropped off in front of the entrance of the Bybrook Cemetery. I half expected there would be a little stone carriage house or someone distributing maps, but there was no one—only a groundskeeper cutting weeds in a veil of light but steady rain.

The cemetery was more sprawling than I anticipated and I had no idea where Simone’s resting place might be. I walked up and down paths, somewhat daunted. The light was low. Only noon, yet more like sundown. I took a few photographs. An embedded cross. An ivy-encrusted tomb. Nearly an hour passed. It continued to rain. A part of me was succumbing to the notion that it was an impossible task when I suddenly remembered that she was buried in the Catholic sector. I found an area with many likenesses of Mary, and crosses everywhere, but no trace of Simone. The sky grew darker. I sat on a bench, somewhat demoralized. Would Simone approve of this pilgrimage? I thought not. But I had lavender in an old handkerchief to leave her, small bits of France, and recalling her love of her homeland, her longing to return, I pressed on.

I looked up at the menacing clouds.

I entreated my brother—

Todd, can you help me? I’m alone on your birthday and searching for someone named Simone.

I felt his hand guiding me. On my right was a wooded area and I felt compelled to walk toward it. Suddenly I stopped. I could smell the earth. There were larks and sparrows, a small shaft of light that appeared, then disappeared. I turned my head with no exalted pause and found her, in all her modest grace. I opened the bellows of my camera, adjusted my lens, and took three Polaroids. I slipped them in my pocket and did not look at them. As I knelt to place the small bundle beneath her name, words formed, the gestation of a poem or prayer, tumbling like a nursery song. I felt helplessly at peace. The rain dissipated. My shoes were muddied. There was an absence of light, but not of love.

Artwork and Text © Patti Smith. This text is an expanded chapter from Smith’s Devotion published in September 2017 by Yale University Press.

Cy Twombly: In Beauty it is finished

Cy Twombly: In Beauty it is finished

Mark Francis, director of the exhibition Cy Twombly: In Beauty it is finished, Drawings 1951–2008, describes the impetus for this expansive presentation, the source for its title, and details the stories of some of the works on view.

Robert Pincus-Witten on Brice Marden

Robert Pincus-Witten on Brice Marden

In honor of Robert Pincus-Witten, we share an essay he wrote in 1991 on Brice Marden’s Grove Group.

Solid Recollections: Rachel Whiteread

Solid Recollections: Rachel Whiteread

James Lawrence explores the quiet power and critical role of memory in Rachel Whiteread’s public works.

Sally Mann: Remembered Light

Sally Mann: Remembered Light

Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann discuss Cy Twombly’s relationship to photography, Mann’s pervasive interest in the American South, and the context behind her newest body of work.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Notre-Dame), 2019.

For Notre-Dame

An exhibition at Gagosian, Paris, is raising funds to aid in the reconstruction of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris following the devastating fire of April 2019. Gagosian directors Serena Cattaneo Adorno and Jean-Olivier Després spoke to Jennifer Knox White about the generous response of artists and others, and what the restoration of this iconic structure means across the world.

Installation view of the exhibition Henry Moore at Houghton Hall: Nature and Inspiration.

Nature and Inspiration: Henry Moore at Houghton Hall

Sebastiano Barassi reflects on the centrality of nature in the work of Henry Moore—as form, material, inspiration, and site.

Richard Prince, Untitled, 2016–18.

Richard Prince

Text by Richard Hell.

Andy Warhol: Everything Is Good

Andy Warhol: Everything Is Good

Richard Hell writes about the “transcendentally camp” Pop artist, portraitist of daily life.

Nina Simone at the Globe Jazz festival at Symphony Hall, March 20, 1987.

Nina Simone, Our National Treasure

Rachel Whiteread, Nissen Hut, 2018.

Shy Sculpture: Nissen Hut

Rachel Whiteread’s public sculpture Nissen Hut was unveiled in October 2018 in Yorkshire’s Dalby Forest. Curator Tamsin Dillon explores the dynamic history of these structures and provides a firsthand account of the steps leading up to the work’s premiere.

Bataille’s First Glance

Bataille’s First Glance

Dr. Philippe Roger, scholar and editor of Critique—the journal founded by Georges Bataille in 1946—considers the groundbreaking philosopher’s thoughts on art and his concept of the “Critical Dictionary.”

Anselm Kiefer, Maginot, 1977–93.

Veil and Vault

An exhibition at the Broad in Los Angeles prompts James Lawrence to examine how artists give shape and meaning to the passage of time, and how the passage of time shapes our evolving accounts of art.