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Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005
November 19, 2005 - January 29, 2006
(above: Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1994, silicon, bronze and glass, 33 x 27 1/2 x 19 inches. Courtesy the artist and PaceWildenstein, New York; © Kiki Smith; photo: Ellen Page Wilson)
The first full-scale American museum survey addressing Kiki Smith's twenty-year career is premiering at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from November 19, 2005, through January 29, 2006. Organized by Siri Engberg, Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, in close collaboration with the artist, Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 includes works in the various media in which the artist is fluent -- from bronze to beeswax to papier-mâché -- dating from 1980 to 2005. SFMOMA's presentation is overseen by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, and will offer a focused look at nearly one hundred objects spanning Smith's oeuvre. Following its San Francisco debut, Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 will travel to its institution of origin, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (February 26 to May 14, 2006), where it will expand to include more than two hundred objects. (right: Kiki Smith, Untitled, 1995, brown paper, methyl cellulose, and horsehair, 53 x 18 x 50 inches. The Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens; © Kiki Smith; photo: Ellen Page Wilson)
Over the last twenty-five years, Smith has developed into a major figure in contemporary art, and she is widely considered to be one of the most important artists of her generation. Best known for her depictions of the human form-both in anatomical fragments and in full figure, rendered in a wide variety of materials-she has explored a broad range of subject matter, including religion, folklore, mythology, natural science, art history, and feminism. From room-size installations to miniatures, Smith's meditations on the human condition have resulted in works of extraordinary power and grace.
"Considered as a whole, Smith's work has made a revolutionary contribution to figurative art," states Grynsztejn. "By turns intimate, universal, visceral, and fragile, her art has provided a poignant exploration of humanity's place in the world while provoking us to think in new ways about the physical, philosophical, and social issues of our time." Adds Engberg, "Kiki Smith furthers the lineage of artists advancing feminist ideas in their work, such as Eva Hesse and Lee Bontecou; her concern with bodily narratives allies her art with peers including Robert Gober and Ann Hamilton, and her work's frank articulation has been an influential precedent for a younger generation of artists-among them Sarah Lucas and Catherine Opie."
Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 unfolds in chronological order and is divided into three "gatherings" (to use Smith's term) of works in a wide range of media, including a concentration of sculptures in plaster, bronze, paper, glass, ceramic, and other materials, as well as installations, prints, drawings, and photographs. These thematic clusters will converge around key figurative works that punctuate the presentation. The exhibition opens with a collection of Smith's very early body-related works from the 1980s, continues with large figural sculptures and floor pieces from the 1990s, and closes with more recent work based on the artist's interest in folklore and the natural world. In addition, Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 will feature an intimate, artist-curated wunderkammer, or "cabinet of wonders," a gallery showcasing both early and recent works, many of which are miniature in scale and have never been seen before. This gallery will be installed largely by Smith herself.
Smith was born in 1954 in Nuremberg, Germany, and grew up in New Jersey, where she was introduced to art at an early age. Her grandfather was an altar carver, her mother an opera singer, and her father, Tony Smith, a sculptor who encouraged her participation in his work and hosted fellow artists and friends such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and the young Richard Tuttle as frequent household guests.
In 1976, after a year at Hartford Art School, Smith settled in New York City, where she turned seriously to art and supported herself by working variously as a cook, an electrician's assistant, and a surveyor. Within a few years her underground reputation grew steadily alongside her involvement with Collaborative Projects, Inc. (CoLab), a New Yorkbased artist cooperative. In 1980 she contributed to the celebrated Times Square Show and received her first solo exhibition at The Kitchen in 1983, followed by shows at P.S. 1, Artists Space, Fawbush Gallery, and eventually PaceWildenstein Gallery.
Her art in these early years, in part a response to her father's death and later influenced by her training as an emergency medical technician, was largely concerned with themes of mortality and the human body. These works often focus on the individual organs, fluids, and systems that make up the body's interior, which Smith depicts in frank, nonhierarchical terms. These sculptures in plaster, paper, and metal, along with the artist's first prints, allude to the literal and metaphorical dissection to which the human body has historically been subjected-from object of the early anatomists' quest for knowledge to a testing ground for contemporary faith in medicine. In Digestive System, 1988, Smith models in cast iron a looping, organic form that represents the accurate length and shape of the human digestive system, from tongue to anus. Another work from the period presents a stomach fashioned in clear, delicate glass. Ribs, 1987, one of her most fragile works from this period, is constructed of white terracotta "bones" held together with thread and precariously attached to the wall. This piece, with its concise expression of the body's dual aspects of vulnerability and strength, is often considered to be a breakthrough in Smith's work, which would subsequently expand to seek out equivalences between the body and the materials of art-the fragility and imperfections of skin and handmade papers, for example, or the fleshy, organic volume of wax and plaster. (left: Kiki Smith, Lucy's Daughters, 1990, silkscreen on cloth, 60 units, figures: 8 to 12 inches high, installation dimensions variable. Collection Rena Rosenwasser and Penny Cooper, Berkeley; © Kiki Smith; photo: Ellen Page Wilson)
Moving into the 1990s, Smith's practice developed an increasingly elaborate vocabulary of the body and its relationship -- both physical and symbolic -- with society. Tale, 1992, presents a life-size figure of a female nude formed in pale beeswax. Positioned on hands and knees as if crawling, the figure excretes onto the floor a long tail of what appears to be feces or intestines. Debased and yet somehow assertive, this anonymous figure is representative of the type of visceral sculptural work that many deem Smith's most forceful: bodies in unflinchingly rendered states of abjection that draw power from the tension between their delicate, beautifully wrought materiality and the shockingly primal acts they depict. The wax figure in Untitled III (Upside Down Body with Beads), 1993, bends over double, hiding her face but defiantly showing her posterior and a spill of glass beads pooled around her feet. An earlier work from this period, Untitled, 1990, represents a life-size nude man and woman modeled in wax, each hanging limply on its own stand, heads slumped in despair, skin mottled with bruises. Bodily fluids stream freely from them: breast milk from the female and semen from the male. Despite their explicitness, these disconcerting figures seem silently reflective-as if oblivious to their effect on the viewer-evoking a particularly touching sense of humanity. Made at a time when the body seemed to be under attack-the height of the AIDS crisis, escalating genetic research, and increasingly contentious reproductive rights-they nevertheless extend beyond the cultural context of their day to encompass universal psychic and physical pain, becoming symbols of the suffering endured by all humans.
In the 1990s, Smith also earned a considerable reputation as a virtuosic printmaker, an explorer of the startling sculptural possibilities of paper, and a reinventor of figurative bronze sculpture. Additionally, she began to engage with themes of feminine archetypes. In Smith's work, the women who populate our cultural mythology, from the Virgin Mary to Little Red Riding Hood, become inhabitants of physical bodies rather than abstract bearers of social doctrine. Lilith, 1994, represents a figure from Hebrew legend, Adam's first wife who rejected him and fled the Garden of Eden. Lilith is widely considered a symbol of feminine strength, and Smith casts her Lilith in bronze from a live model squatting on the floor, looking sharply over her shoulder. The bronze figure hangs on the wall upside down, on all fours, clinging to a vertical plane like a supernatural creature and peering up at the viewer through disturbingly life-like glass eyes.
More recently Smith has nurtured a growing menagerie of work concerned with the natural world, including animals and celestial bodies. Already known for her work representing the human body, Smith began to question whether figurative art must be about humans only. The resulting creations convey the artist's devout belief in the intimate connection between humanity and the environment, and they look to animals to tell us new stories about ourselves. The exhibition will feature key works from this period, including Flock, 1998, an installation composed of hundreds of bronze bird carcasses. Inspired in equal parts by the Bible, natural history museums, and contemporary environmental disasters, the piece is a meditation on the consequences of imbalance between humans and the natural world.
The most recent works in Kiki Smith show the artist continuing to expand on her earlier ideas, as in her Pieta drawings-self-portraits of the artist with her dead cat in the posture of the grieving Virgin Mary. Other works seek to create new mythologies, as in Born, 2002, and Rapture, 2001, which merge the human with the animal. In these works, Smith finds inherent in the mortality that has haunted so much of her work the possibility of rebirth.
The Walker Art Center will publish a 320-page, fully illustrated exhibition catalogue offering critical essays by the exhibition curator, art historian Linda Nochlin, and folklorist Marina Warner, as well as an interview with the artist by novelist Lynne Tillman. The publication also will include a complete exhibition history and bibliography, and the first-ever comprehensive illustrated chronology of Smith's life and work. After opening at SFMOMA, Kiki Smith will travel to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (February 26 to May 14, 2006); the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (July 15 to September 24, 2006); and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (November 16, 2006, to February 11, 2007).
Wall texts from the exhibition
Over the past twenty-five years Kiki Smith has established herself as one of the most engaging and original artists of our time. Best known for her depictions of the human form -- both in anatomical fragments and in full figure -- she is a remarkable innovator in sculpture, printmaking, and drawing, consistently revealing new symbolic potential in traditional materials and techniques. Often employing simple gestures, she uses the body as a metaphor, drawing upon science, faith, and folklore to consider our strengths and frailties. Her interests have gradually expanded in the last decade to encompass the natural environment and the cosmos beyond.
Born in 1954 to Jane Smith, an opera singer and actress, and Tony Smith, a well-known architect and abstract sculptor, Kiki Smith grew up in New Jersey with a steady exposure to artists and their processes. Her earliest mature works took as their starting point the form and functions of the human body. Drawing upon her love for craft and decoration, and working in materials as diverse as handmade paper, papier-mâché, glass, terra-cotta, plaster, wax, and bronze, she located meaning equally in her handwork, which was always apparent in her finished creations, and in her unique vision of the body, which ranged from clinical to primal. In the 1990s Smith began to engage with themes from literature and history, reimagining biblical and mythological characters as inhabitants of resolutely physical bodies. More recently her vocabulary has expanded to include animals and the natural world, both as they interact with humans and as subjects in their own right.
This exhibition presents a full survey of the artist's work to date, featuring sculptures in a broad variety of media as well as prints, drawings, photographs, editioned objects, and installations. An active seeker of possibilities, Smith has staged a persistent inquiry that has resulted in works of extraordinary power and beauty, inviting us to reexamine ourselves, our history, and our place in the world.
Entering the Body
"I think I chose the body as a subject, not consciously, but because it is the one form that we all share; it's something that everybody has their own authentic experience with."
-Kiki Smith, 1990
In 1976 Smith settled in New York, where she turned seriously to art while working variously as a cook, an electrician's assistant, and a surveyor. Her underground reputation grew steadily during the next few years, particularly once she became involved with the artists' cooperative Collaborative Projects Inc. (CoLab). Early on she introduced the body as the central subject of her art, initially inspired by such sources as Gray's Anatomy, a classic text first published in 1858 whose illustrations make individual organs seem discrete and decontextualized. An untitled plaster sculpture of a hand and forearm, made in 1980, evidences the beginnings of her interest in casting from life. The dots of pigment embellishing this piece presage both the scourge of AIDS and the notion of physical mortality, which would become a long-standing preoccupation of her visual thinking.
To develop her understanding of physiology, Smith spent three months in 1985 training as an emergency medical technician. Through sculptures and prints, she created a lexicon of the body's interior, often relying on her choice of materials to evoke meaning. The solidity of bronze signifies the enduring strength of life, while glass, terra-cotta, paper, and plaster allude to its fragility. Other works from this period reveal Smith's dedication to craft. Nervous Giants (198687), a series of muslin panels embroidered with organic systems; Dowry Cloth (1990), a sensuous and tactile work formed through felting, one of the earliest methods for making fabric; and Lucy's Daughters (1990), a cluster of printed and stitched cloth dolls, were all made using practices traditionally associated with women and domesticity, interests that continue to inform Smith's art.
The Figure Reimagined
In the early 1990s Smith continued to engage the human body as a subject, moving away from her previous investigations of organs and systems to depictions of complete figures. Using materials such as beeswax, paper, and bronze, she made a number of pieces-often cast from life-that examine male and (more frequently) female forms as sites of political and social meaning.
These disarming, anonymous bodies are far from the ideal nudes that populate much of art history. Like Smith's early sculptures, they are at once visceral and dignified, familiar yet discomfiting; they remain quietly introspective in spite of their debased states. Through the subject matter of these works, Smith established herself as an artist concerned with feminist themes, and through her remarkably physical materials, she presented the body in a wholly original way, forging new territory in the history of figurative sculpture.
Smith's focus on anonymous feminine forms rather than particular personalities led her to examine female archetypes in religion, mythology, and folklore. In some cases she sought unexpected variations on familiar themes: Virgin Mary (1992), for instance, is a rendering of the mother of God flayed skinless like an anatomical model, her muscles exposed. Smith also depicts women that art history has largely forgotten, such as Lilith, who is described variously in Hebrew legend as Adam's first wife (and as such refused to submit to a subordinate role) or as a vengeful, night-flying demon of the air. Smith cast her Lilith (1994) in bronze, with eerily human glass eyes peering from the dark patina of a body that seems to crawl, insectlike, across the wall. She resurrects these characters to point out how society has transformed their bodies into abstract, doctrinal allegories. Smith insists upon their physicality and creates arresting images that contemplate the boundaries between the individual and the universal while emphasizing the need to seek out new narratives.
Wunderkammer: A Universe of Curiosities
"The thing I love about going to museums is that it's a confirmation. Your ancestors tell you that there's a reason for doing a particular activity, or that they liked doing it too. . . . If you make figurative sculptures, they have real power in them, they take up some kind of psychic space. I think that objects have memories. I'm always thinking that I'll go to the museum and see something and have a big memory about some other lifetime."
-Kiki Smith, 1994
Smith's interests trace back to an array of historical sources, from ancient Egyptian burial rites to the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, a medieval predecessor of modern museums. A sixteenth-century Wunderkammer might have included plant and animal specimens, minerals, coins, religious relics, botanical prints, anatomical models, body parts, and medical instruments. The tradition of gathering together such disparate items has always captivated Smith, who continually investigates the new relationships and possible meanings that can surface when things are assembled and juxtaposed.
This gallery includes a grouping of objects and images that Smith selected expressly for this exhibition to represent the eclectic yet interconnected threads of her work. They point to the broad range of her pursuits, from body parts to animals, abstraction to self-portraiture. Her inspirations mine the breadth of art history and the decorative arts: Renaissance paintings, Buddhist figurines, gargoyles, and the skirted dancers of Edgar Degas, to name just a few. Made over the course of the last twenty-five years, these pieces present in microcosm a thematic and chronological survey of Smith's career.
The Natural World
"My work has evolved from minute particles within the body, up through the body, and landed outside the body. . . . Now I want to roam around the landscape."
-Kiki Smith, 1994
Themes surrounding the natural world have played a significant role in Smith's work. The landscapes she references may be literal, such as the earth's terrain, or metaphorical, as in her many works based on animals, the cosmos, and imaginary spaces. The appearance of avian imagery in 1992 heralded her newfound interest in the historical and spiritual connections between humans and animals; since then she has utilized birds and a variety of other creatures-including wolves, deer, cats, bats, and mice-that carry symbolic associations from literature and folklore or that have been significant in her own life.
Several of the works on view in this gallery loosely assemble animals in a kind of menagerie. Flock (1998), on the other hand, presents the silhouettes of more than two hundred preserved bird specimens, traced in bronze and arranged in neat rows, as a human-made taxonomy. Some pieces alluding to landscape and natural phenomena consist of accumulations of like objects, as in Mine (1999), a constellation of sharply pointed stars made from delicate Schott crystal, or Yellow Moon (1998), a multipanel depiction of our nearest celestial neighbor. Smith has long been interested in using the gallery as a space for creating narrative. By juxtaposing sculpted human figures with subjects from nature, she emphasizes our intimate and often fragile relationship with the environment.
Smith is one of contemporary art's most engaging storytellers, frequently weaving together elements from religion, mythology, folktales, and literature and inviting multiple interpretations of them. Her choice of materials is always deliberate and powerful, as in the floor piece Dewbow (1999), a gleaming expanse of large glass droplets. While its title alludes to natural phenomena, the sculpture also brings to mind the bodily fluids so important in Smith's earlier work as well as the common literary association between crying and femininity. Of particular relevance is the scene in Lewis Carroll's 1865 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (a text Smith has referenced in a number of works) in which Alice swims in a colossal pool of her own tears.
In other pieces that merge humans and animals, Smith again combines elements from books, folklore, and art history. Pietà (1999), a self-portrait of the artist mourning her dead cat, refers in both title and composition to traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ. Rapture, a work from 2001, shows a woman emerging from the belly of a wolf, alluding to the finale of "Little Red Riding Hood" as well as more ancient narratives of rebirth. And in Blue Girl (1998), a female figure kneels reverently before a backdrop of starfish, which evokes a dreamlike connection between the sea and the sky. Smith's visual poetry invites us to contemplate the physical and spiritual worlds that human beings inhabit and create for themselves.
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