Nan Goldin for The New York Times
Late one sunny morning last month, I stopped by to visit Kiki Smith. I recognized the house in the East Village by the wind chimes on the fire escape. Climbing a staircase, from which the banister had strangely been removed, I found Smith, ethereal and laughing as usual, in her studio on the second floor, which doubles as her living room. It’s blue and white, airy and peaceful, with tall glass doors at one end (opening onto a scary, straight drop, as if down the rabbit hole) to an overgrown garden.
After the usual pleasantries, Smith told me that her French dealer, Jean Frémon, would be arriving shortly to see a few outdoor sculptures she had installed in a pair of gardens up the street. Then she was expected on Canal Street at Harlan & Weaver, the print maker (“It’s my second home,” she said, and she wasn’t kidding, as she had been going several times a day, day and night, for months, I learned). She was working on a series of etchings of flowers, a theme inspired by her mother’s death last year. The prints had to be finished in time for an art fair, she explained, and she had only a couple of days left in town before she flew to London for a different show, for which she was in Philadelphia a day earlier, to cast various sculptures of tree limbs and moths.
I was losing track but smiling, pretending to keep up. After Harlan & Weaver, she went on, she had to rush uptown to Pace Editions, on the edge of Chelsea, to design, using Photoshop, a series of silk banners for yet another show, which would be timed to coincide with her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Oh, and that evening, she said, she had a seat at a benefit — she couldn’t recall for what, offhand.
At 52, Smith has a thick halo of gray hair and porcelain skin liberally tattooed with turquoise rings and stars. They make rows on her fingers, arms and legs. She also wears strings of necklaces and bracelets stacked atop one another. You can hear when she’s coming because her jewelry jingles. She looks a little like the woman who runs the local candle shop. Her hands constantly fiddle: she’s always drawing or making things out of clay or whatever. Partly, it’s a way to distract her gaze. Mostly, for her, making art is like breathing.
Since she emerged during the late 70’s, she has become an art-world fixture, pushing contemporary art past 70’s feminism, reinventing some of feminism’s themes and processes and its activist spirit. Early on, she was involved with the collectively run center for art, ABC No Rio, on the Lower East Side. Her first solo show in New York, in 1988, included sculptures of a terra-cotta rib cage and a cast-iron version of the digestive system that resembled a radiator. A show at the Museum of Modern Art two years later had 12 silvered glass water bottles, labeled with bodily fluids in gothic letters, a separate piece made up of crystal sperm and a work called “Dowry Cloth,” an irregular Modernist grid made of sewn felted wool and human hair.
She belongs to a dynasty. Her father, Tony Smith, was one of the preeminent postwar American sculptors. Her mother, Jane Lawrence Smith, a onetime Broadway actress and opera singer before she married and raised three daughters, returned to her stage career later in life, working in experimental-theater productions and independent films until not long before she died. (Her mother’s great friend Tennessee Williams was best man at the Smiths’ wedding.)
Artists like Barnett Newman and Richard Tuttle came by the Smiths’ big Victorian house in South Orange, N.J., and Kiki remembers how contemporary art was “like air, completely ordinary, although I couldn’t have told you what Minimalism meant, and I hardly saw representational art until college, which I guess was partly what attracted me to it. It seemed like a way for me to have a life of my own.”
She likes to repeat the anecdote about herself and her two younger twin sisters, after school, making paper models of octahedrons and tetrahedrons for their father to use for his sculptures. “We were the local weirdos, until it became cool and exotic, when I was a teenager, to be from the family of an artist.” Beatrice, one of the twin sisters, died of AIDS during the 80’s, and some of Kiki’s art about the human body as an object under duress, and sometimes dead, was no doubt a response to AIDS, which also afflicted many other people Smith was close to then, like the artist David Wojnarowicz. Her other sister, Seton, has become a prominent artist, too — she makes large, fuzzy Cibachrome photographs mostly of architecture and landscapes — a path she settled on as a teenager, while Kiki was still struggling to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She was a lousy student. She studied baking for a while; she trained as an emergency medical technician.
Finally, she found her way to a career that, in retrospect, has come to seem inevitable. During the last 20 years or so, her work has been in innumerable exhibitions around the world. The latest, the traveling retrospective that opens this month at the Whitney, was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Because Smith’s father, an architect by training, made famously huge, metal, geometric abstractions that came to be crudely associated with a kind of macho Minimalism during the 60’s, Kiki’s work is often casually regarded as a reaction against his. But this assessment is deceptive. Her prime subject has been the body — or, in the feminist vein, the body as social and political object. She makes work both about what the body looks like on the outside, in all its sagging flesh and fragility, and about what it produces on the inside: pus, urine, sperm, breast milk, excrement, spit. Gray’s Anatomy was, for a while, a big source. She has made prints of internal organs like the liver and sculptures of arterial systems made of colored glass beads. She has made sculptures of severed limbs and fingers, like reliquary objects, and one of the Virgin Mary, flayed. Much of the work is delicate and lovely, but more than a few people have found figures like the one she devised with beeswax and papier-mâché, called “Tale,” of a woman on her hands and knees trailing excrement, revolting.
Her longtime friend Tom Otterness, also a sculptor, remembers how, some years back, he was sitting with his future wife, Coleen Fitzgibbon, “when we lived downstairs from Kiki on Ludlow Street. Suddenly, Coleen looked out the window in horror,” he says. “There was this flayed body being lowered outside the building. It was one of Kiki’s creations, all bloodied with a rope around its neck, heading down to the street, off to the shippers. This sort of thing went on all the time.
“The image I have,” he continues, “is of her plunging her hand into her chest and pulling out her heart and her guts and saying: ‘You think you make personal work? Well, try this.’ Her art goes further than everyone else’s, I think. She’s willing to go anywhere with it, and sometimes I’m just left dumbfounded. She’s fearless. Totally fearless.”
Smith also produces dreamy, gossamer works of animals and mythical and religious figures — motifs and themes she recycles in tissue-y paper and fabric (often traditional, craft-oriented, “women’s” materials, she likes to point out), along with bronze, wax, plaster and just about anything that catches her fancy. “My mom always said to trust one’s inner voice,” Smith said. “I think a lot of making art is listening to yourself. I got that from both parents. What always attracted me about my father’s work was that it was also intuitive.”
That October morning I visited her, everything in Smith’s house (she lives alone) was in artful, slightly exquisite disarray. Plaster and bronze sculptures of figurines were laid here and there; fading roses filled crystal vases. An oval mirror hung above a weathered blue chest, bouncing light across a kitchen table crowded with coffee cups, half-finished drawings, books, scraps of silk for that banner project at Pace, rubber stamps and tiny metal birds made for yet another project, and a Steuben vase she is designing, delicately etched with fingerprints. One of Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures of a bookshelf hung on the wall nearby, in lieu of a bookshelf. A painting by Tony Smith (green-and-red abstract wormy shapes) topped the mantelpiece.
So much of Kiki’s art, I thought, has come to look like her house, and vice versa. In Venice recently, she devised an entire suite of rooms, which blurred, as she does in her studio and living room, the line between art and life.
An assistant, Beka Goedde, calmly manned a computer and the phone, which rang off the hook. “My father made his work with us around,” Smith said. “I like Betsy Ross as a model, too, the quilting bee, sitting around with your friends making art, asking what they think, so that you get the benefit of everyone’s opinions and so it’s not just about you in your you-dom.”
This brought to mind what Otterness said about Kiki’s parents’ house: “It was really a woman’s house. Breakfast was with all of the gals in the kitchen while Tony would be somewhere upstairs, having some sort of liquid breakfast. He had a formal dining table that had these small sculptures on it, which he moved around. Kiki’s mom was a sort of grande dame, and she would demonstrate how to have a salon or a cultured life. I think a powerful part of what Kiki is now is modeled on her childhood home.
“She may be cooking and making stuff on the table and then clear it off or not,” he added. “I’ve seen curators come into Kiki’s house and just die, seeing the way she kept the space, with the cats rolling on her drawings and peeing on these precious works. I think it is a way for her to knock an edge off the work, not to feel intimidated by it.”
As if to underscore her lack of pretense, Smith speaks in the disconcerting voice of a little girl who loves ballerinas and wants to be a veterinarian, although she can be very much all business when it comes to her work (and to any description of herself — she never had any interest in ballerinas or veterinarians, she insists). Elizabeth Murray, the painter, once described another artist whose air of otherworldliness belied what was actually a firm grasp on the world as “somebody who’s always there when the cookies are being counted.” This suits Smith too.
Beka interrupted to remind Kiki that, before leaving the house, she needed to finish a promised anniversary present for friends — a table made out of a liquor crate (akin, I supposed, to the cardboard boxes and crates with which her father sparsely furnished the South Orange house), painted black and stenciled with gold decorations. Kiki and Beka, armed with screws and a power drill, settled onto the living room couch facing the television.
Isn’t it odd, Smith idly remarked, how the television won’t turn off? I turned to look at the black screen, which flickered with light, like static. I turned the power switch on, then off. The lights kept flickering.
Yes, I said. Odd.
Some years back, when Smith and I were visiting the Metropolitan Museum, she pointed out some ancient South American earrings and pendants, which she thought were trembling slightly in their glass cases — maybe from subway vibrations, nearly half a mile away, she ventured. (Again, I smiled.) The thought prompted her to say: “I’m fascinated by those Survival Research Laboratories that take dead animals, like cats, and reanimate them by motorizing their limbs. It’s like Frankenstein or Jesus or Osiris.” Then she likened a metal incense burner in the Islamic galleries, with its lacy perforations for releasing the smoke, to “a human body with skin. After all,” she said, “skin is really a lacy surface, it’s porous.”
And she also loved how, looking at some Assyrian reliefs, the figures in them “morphed between humans and animals, birds and humans.”
“I dream about birds,” she added. “Birds are stand-ins for souls.” Over the years she has made many sculptures and drawings of birds, dead and alive, of nests, of humans and birds, of half-human-half-animal creatures, of animals giving birth to humans — all sorts of mythic, fairy-tale transmutations, including a version of the classic “Daphne,” who turns into a tree, made of plaster with glass twigs.
“First I made anatomical drawings, drawings of particles and cells,” Smith recounted, “then works about systems in the body, like the lymph and the digestive system, then works about skin, then whole figures and sculptures based on different cosmologies. And then, through the cosmologies, animals.”
“I see animals as a natural progression in my work,” she said.
In all cases, art is clearly an animated creation for Smith — it has its own aura or soul, beyond just expressing what is in hers. The writer Marina Warner observed that Smith’s works look “unblinkingly at the life in dead things.” When she was a child, Smith had little shrines and mummies for dead animals and put necklaces on them. Her mother described her making “a shrine to Mother Mary.”
“I was raised Catholic,” Smith told me. With pencil in hand, she had buried her nose in a book of tattoo drawings called “Historic Flash,” from which she copied roses, doves, eagles and hearts to add to the Steuben design. “Catholicism is a body-fetishized religion,” she went on. “It’s always taking inanimate things and giving meaning to them. Also my father was ill for the last 20 years of his life. So I thought about the body a lot.
“I always say I’m Catholic — but a cultural Catholic,” she added. “I wouldn’t say I’m a spiritual person, although I pray every day.”
To what? I asked.
She glanced up. “That shifts around.” She laughed. “I try to cover all my bases.”
Which perhaps partly accounts for the mixed allusions not just to Catholic rituals but also to Greek myths and to popular fairy tales. She has made drawings of birds breathed out of a woman’s mouth (“anima,” Warner pointed out, also means breath). Ancient Egyptians believed that statues could breathe in the souls of pharaohs. Smith even compares the repetitive process of making cardboard models for her father — and how he kept using these same geometric forms over and over, in subtle variations — to “saying rosaries.”
“My father’s work was actually expressionistic and superemotional,” she has said. “People think his works are cool because they are geometric, but the idea that a curve is more expressionistic than a straight line is just ridiculous.” “Source,” one of her father’s abstract sculptures shaped like a figure in a fetal position, from which extends an appendage, an L, like a limb, Smith described as a body with “a limp penis — not that I literally read his work as anthropomorphic. I don’t. I see it as a bundle of energy attached to an object with no energy. But formally, the work translates into my work as a body. I’ve been influenced a lot by it, and by the idea of the appendage, of how our arms and hair hang off the body,” she added. “That’s what I was thinking about when I made ‘Tale,’ ” the sculpture of the woman trailing excrement, which is, then, not just a sculpture about abject corporeality but also her psychological riff on his high Modernist abstraction.
She noticed my curious expression. “Yes, you could also make something out of my seeing my father’s work as a limp penis.” As she once told The Los Angeles Times: “Prior to my father’s death I was having a hard time committing to a career as an artist, but that’s not because of who he was — it was because of who I am. It’s true, though, that I felt I shouldn’t compete with him, and that those feelings went away after he died. But I don’t see my work as diametrically opposed to my father’s — some people say it is — and I’ve never felt the need to metaphorically ‘kill’ my father or deny his existence. I love my father’s work and learned a lot from him — the most important thing being that art is a practice of necessity. He absolutely had to do his work and it always came first in his life, and though I probably didn’t like that as a child, I’m very sympathetic to it now.”
Her ability to connect works like his and hers, to make wild imaginative leaps, has had a liberating effect on younger artists. Some people find her work precious or melodramatic. But good artists give other artists permission. And Smith has done that.
Frémon, Smith’s Paris dealer, a cheerful, elegant, white-haired man all in black, arrived to see the outdoor sculptures, and they set off down the street talking business. The first sculpture, of a woman lifting a large doe, was just up the block, beside a tiny, winding pebble path behind a locked gate in a narrow garden. Frémon nodded a couple of times to register approval when Smith’s phone rang. Taking the call, she hurried the dealer toward another, scruffier park, also behind a locked gate, with bins for recycled garbage. There, a fountain she devised, in the unlikely shape of an upper denture, flipped upside-down to create a shallow basin for water, prompted Frémon to nod again. Smith got another call. While she was distracted, I asked Frémon if he had found her this scattered on other occasions. He couldn’t recall a conversation, he said, in which she was not preoccupied. It was a form of shyness, he thought.
She hailed a taxi for Harlan & Weaver and waved goodbye to Frémon. Felix Harlan and Carol Weaver, the print publishers, have a workshop in several large, unfussy white rooms filled with tables, files, vats and sinks for acids (to etch copper plates). The latest versions of Smith’s flower prints, along with lunch, were laid out around a table when she arrived.
Smith had been designing these etchings — of peonies, hydrangeas, hyacinths, freesia, a yellow rose, lilies and gladiolas — for about a year. She had long admired the sepia photographs of flowers by Adolphe Braun, which became templates for French wallpaper during the 19th century, a transformation that dovetails with Smith’s own penchant for recycling images and for domestic handicrafts like wall stenciling. She started these prints when her house was full of condolence flowers after her mother died. She photographed the bouquets, and the photographs became models for the prints. They are made by combining four copper plates: yellow, red, blue and black.
Over lunch she burnished, or lightened, the black plate for the hyacinths, which sat on the table in front of her, next to a sandwich and apple pie. Later, I asked Maggie Wright about Smith. Wright, an engaging, bookish young printer, has been at Harlan & Weaver for a decade, and, assisting Felix and Carol, started working with Smith shortly after that. “She’s insatiable,” Wright said. “Work is so much a part of Kiki’s life, of who she is, that she doesn’t put it down. It is like her arm, this thing that travels with her. She lives in her art, in the way she lives in her studio. Some artists who come here leave their work when they go home. She doesn’t. And she likes having people around — she wants input, collaboration.
“She has her moods,” Wright added after a pause. “She doesn’t always know where she’s going. It’s not easy. But you feel like you’ve gone through the process with her by the time you come out the other end.”
Smith gave her version: “I have no real ability to do things, no inherent aptitude. So I have to use my weakness to my advantage. Etching is great because it lets you work on the same thing again and again. It’s generous.
“Also, the hardest thing is to get past your taste — past your own formulaic way of doing things. Otherwise you’re stopped by what you know, which is limited. Chance is what a lot of artists use. In my case, I’ll arrange ways for things to be unpredictable. That’s what’s nice about working on prints. You’re working with other people so you have to let go of some of your own ideas. Almost everything I do involves collaboration.”
During the late 70’s and early 80’s, Smith was part of a collective named CoLab, which organized hit-and-run events around New York — a precursor to all the chic collaboratives doing ad-hoc exhibitions with young artists nowadays. CoLab and Smith epitomized an emerging spirit in the art community, which soon would spread from SoHo to the East Village, where she finally settled: socially engaged, embracing all sorts of humdrum and eccentric materials, along with street life and various new, personal brands of narrative. “We had about 40 people in the group,” Smith recalled. “Anyone could be a member if you just went to a few meetings. The idea was to think up different forms for the presentation of art — exhibitions, radio transmissions, television shows, suitcase shows, murals. We made paintings together. We did drawings and copied them as banners. We even had a pretend band. For me it stopped being interesting when people started repeating ideas and CoLab started to be institutionalized. I had no interest in institutions. Besides, by then, everybody had had affairs with as many of the others in the group as possible. So it fell apart organically. But for a while it was a model of a community, outside the usual gallery situation, without anybody having to sanction us. These things can’t sustain themselves for long.”
From Harlan & Weaver, Smith grabbed another cab, hustling uptown to the slicker workshop of Pace Editions, where Andre Ribuoli, a computer whiz, was waiting for her. He manages Pace’s digital studio. It was late afternoon by then. Ribuoli was going to help her design banners or flags for the Pace show. These had to be done swiftly, before she left for London. Smith brought small sample swatches of silk printed at a fabric printer’s, with three images (recycled drawings) of a wolf surrounded by stars, a bird and a moth, and of two tattooed women: one reclining like a mermaid on what looked like part of a giant snake. The silk was soft; the images were muddy. Ribuoli had printed a thinner, rougher fabric swatch with better resolution but duller color. Smith fingered it, disapprovingly.
“I want the fabric machine-washable,” she said.
Ribuoli suppressed a smile. “Do you think anybody would want to throw your art in a washing machine?” he asked.
“I want something real,” she said, curtly. “Who cares what people want?”
They settled behind his computer to Photoshop the images.
She told him what colors and effects she wanted. He invented them digitally. She wanted the look of old, hand-colored prints. Uncomfortable without something physical to do herself, she grabbed the mouse occasionally and voiced some frustration when the process bogged down or when she and Ribuoli talked at cross-purposes.
“Everybody young can do this stuff,” she said. “I loved what I was doing at Harlan & Weaver because etching is hands-on and has specific limitations. You’ve got the copper plates. You’re working on a particular scale. You’ve got just a few colors. Here you have infinite colors and an infinite scale. It’s seductive but you can waste a lot of time and never finish.”
“I’ve seen it seduce many artists,” Ribuoli chimed in, “And they’ll forget about what they first wanted to do.” He called up the wolf image with the stars and bird. Smith said: “The wolf I drew in the 90’s, the stars and bird last year. I really love reconfiguring things. There’s an economy to it. Images become like an alphabet. They can get married but still fool around.”
“I used some of these same images for a carpet design and for a bag I did for Coach,” she added. “I like the idea that you can walk on them and carry them around. It’s my way of playing house — being in the real world.”
Ribuoli turned the background yellow, then blue, then purple. “Every color is beautiful,” Smith said. “I’m going insane.” After much toing and froing, Ribuoli proposed a purplish blue that offset the soft yellow they had devised for the wolf’s eyes and for the stars, which turned the image into a night scene. “You see,” Smith said. “I never would have thought of that exact color but I love it. That’s what I mean about being open.”
Later I asked Ribuoli whether I had correctly perceived some initial tension. “What you sensed is right,” he said. “We jumped right into this, without preparation. We’ve worked enough over the years so I hope she knows we’ll get it done. But she had a tough schedule, so there was an urgency.
“I think Kiki loves the technology as much as there are things about it she can’t stand,” he said. “Either the computer can’t do something fast enough for her or the techniques are convoluted. It’s a challenge. Always. But I’ve got to tell you, no B.S., she’s one of my favorite artists to work with. You see the excitement and happiness — and there are times she says she wants to kill me. But she frees me up. She makes me laugh.”
Two days later, after Smith and I bought a takeout lunch from City Bakery, we headed back to Pace. She had skipped the benefit, it turned out (she still didn’t recall what it was for) and returned instead to Harlan & Weaver, working into the night on the etchings. Now she needed to finish the banners. As we walked down the street, she talked more about her upbringing:
“Sometimes I’m angry that my sisters and I weren’t better educated,” she said. “Neither of our parents graduated from college, so they didn’t see it as something we needed to have. It hadn’t hindered them. They didn’t have any ambition for us except to find ourselves.” Seton and she found themselves in art. “It makes life so easy when you have a passion for something,” she continued. “It’s hard when you don’t.”
Smith said she takes occasional classes on weekends.
“It’s hard to imagine you have the spare time,” I said.
“I’m not always this hectic,” she said. “I took one about optical weather phenomena, another about Asian architecture, and about ceramics. Art is about being curious. About knowing how things hold meaning — trying to make sense of oneself, one’s environment.”
She spent the rest of the afternoon redoing everything she and Ribuoli had done before. The process seemed smoother now. Over chocolate-chip cookies, the two of them arrived at new colors for the backgrounds. As a little joke, they Photoshopped in droppings for the small bird in the wolf banner. Smith left it for Ribuoli to refine the details. She had to pack for London.
“I like having limits,” she said. “That was the nature of my father’s work. He had the octahedrons and tetrahedrons. I have the animals and people.”
Bill Hall, who oversees the Pace print shop next door, caught Smith on the way out. She had begun several soft-ground etchings — portraits of friends — and he wanted to remind her about them, to see what she planned to do. They were spread out for her. She looked through them, and frowned. Another time, she said.
Smith then thanked Ribuoli and turned to the door.
“Another great day,” she said. The sound of her jewelry echoed down the hall.