Patti Smith apologizes as she sits down at a table within the tall, concrete walls of Kurimanzutto. The Mexico City gallery has organized several projects with the artist across the capital, including a display of photographs in the vitrines of the iconic Café La Habana, a billboard installation in the Condesa district, and a series of performances accompanied by her longtime musical partner, Lenny Kaye. The night before our meeting at the gallery, Patti had performed to an intimate audience at Café La Habana, where her glass of water had turned out to be tequila. "It was so good, so I kept drinking it," she jokes. "And now I can't remember anything!"
The project is titled "Café La Habana Sessions" and evokes Patti's fascination with the café as a social space, as well as her admiration for some of Mexico's greatest artists and writers: When she turned 16, in 1962 in New Jersey, her mother gave her a copy of The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, a biography of the celebrated early-20th-century Mexican muralist. It changed her world. The then-factory-worker (this experience inspired the song "Piss Factory") knew she wanted to be an artist, though she didn't exactly know what that meant.
Patti found in the characters of Rivera and his wife, the surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, an appealing dynamic: one of artistic collaboration, passion, and revolutionary spirit. "I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker," she wrote in Just Kids, her memoir that documents her romance-turned-friendship with queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in gritty 1970s New York.
Yet the Mexican duo didn't exactly boast the kind of compassionate relationship many would aspire to have. The imposing Rivera, standing over six feet tall, is generally portrayed as an abusive, misogynistic womanizer. Frida had many documented affairs of her own, including with the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas. Their tumultuous relationship drove the couple to a grueling divorce (still, they would remarry a year later).