A week before Christmas, in the midst of a Midtown Manhattan decked in its holiday finery, Patti Smith, New York City’s punk poet laureate, gave an unannounced performance before a fast-gathering crowd of several hundred in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art.
Ms. Smith, who will turn 70 this month, was in a congenial and casual mood. She wore a black blazer and jeans, sang four songs, and tested out some new glasses by reading about 10 poems.
Several times, she interrupted herself mid-reading to tell a funny story or to chuckle at herself for forgetting lyrics — again. (Ms. Smith, overcome with emotion, also stopped midway through a rendition of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” recently at the Nobel Prize award ceremony as she accepted Bob Dylan’s literature prize.)
The performance was dedicated to the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet, who was born on Dec. 19, 1910, and was an idol of Ms. Smith’s. She has performed at the museum on or around his birthday nearly every year since 2010. But she also jokingly made note of some other recent birthdays.
“Yesterday was the pope’s birthday and I think, Keith Richards’s birthday,” she said. “You have the whole spectrum there.” (Mr. Richards’s 73rd birthday was, in fact, Sunday.)
The show was unannounced, but employees and patrons of the museum were made aware of it ahead of time, the result being a classic Gotham crowd: a mix of those in the know, those alerted by friends in the know and dozens of others who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Ms. Smith performed in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, and Ms. Gund herself was quietly occupying a chair near a wall that bears her name. Michael Stipe, the frontman of R.E.M. and Ms. Smith’s close friend, was also in attendance, wearing a powder-blue winter hat, as was Caroline Polachek, one half of the Brooklyn duo Chairlift, which recently announced that it would be breaking up.
Through the first half of her hourlong performance, Ms. Smith honored the spirit of Mr. Genet. She played the songs “Wing” and “My Blakean Year” and read poems dedicated to the playwright and actor Sam Shepard and the photographer Diane Arbus.
Ms. Smith recalled running into Ms. Arbus at the Chelsea Hotel decades earlier: “She always had a camera and she was always in a bad mood. I tried to stay out of her way.”
“That sounds like my teenagers,” an audience member muttered.
But Ms. Smith’s political viewpoint slowly crept in, beginning with her poem “Sleep of the Dodo,” which she introduced as a poem for “our precious species we are losing,” mentioning climate change and those who deny its existence.
“They will not think it such a myth when there are no fish to eat, when there is no more fowl,” she said.
For about 10 minutes afterward, Ms. Smith’s fire seemed to recede. She read a portion of a poem dedicated to the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, the friend about whom she wrote the best-selling memoir “Just Kids.” That work, released in 2010, introduced her to a new generation of fans, including three young Belgians who were in Harlem when they were alerted to the performance on Facebook Live but arrived too late to witness it.
But with three final pieces, Ms. Smith addressed the postelection climate, without mentioning the name of the president-elect. She read a poem that she said was about having the resilience to resist darkness, and another dedicated to Jesse Paris Smith, her daughter, because “our sons and daughters are the hope of the world.”
She closed out the set with the 1988 song “People Have the Power,” written with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, singing with shades of the steely vibrato that she has been known for since her album “Horses” came out more than 40 years ago.
“Our artists and our leaders can inspire us,” Ms. Smith said, introducing the song, which she performed with the help of Omer Leibovitz, a guitarist and audio engineer who works at the museum and had not known he would be accompanying Ms. Smith when he arrived at work that day. “But the people, in our real numbers, are the ones who make change. The only way we can make change is to unify.”
Ms. Smith received the most enthusiastic applause when she sang about “the power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools.”
“And we can wrestle you,” she shouted, interrupting herself to curse gleefully as the audience clapped and cheered.