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The Body Politic:
The Art of Being Kiki Smith

Gender, pain, transience - the themes in her work hit a nerve in the '80s in an art scene marked by debates on gender and on AIDS. Kiki Smith, whose work is part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, is now being celebrated with the large-scale retrospective "A Gathering 1980-2005" at the Whitney Museum in New York. But is Smith's art really still as poetic and as provocative as it once was? Cheryl Kaplan introduces the American artist.

Blue Girl, 1998,
Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York,
Photo: Ellen Page Wilson

Hearing Kiki Smith talk about her family and her early years in South Orange, New Jersey, you almost can’t believe the story is true. As she tells it in Squatting the Palace, a new documentary film on Smith by Vivien Bittencort and Vincent Katz that debuts at New York’s Film Forum in January."We didn’t have any furniture in our house. We grew up in the house my father grew up in, and when his parents died and his aunt came and took all the furniture away, we’d go to the supermarket and get fruit boxes and my father would have us paint them and nail boards on the back of them, and they’d be for our clothes or night-stands." It’s either a life right out of Dickens –or the circus. Or maybe a bit of both.

Untitled, 1990, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis,
Photo: Cameron Wittig

As it turns out, the artist’s personal biography has played a large role in Smith’s work. Her father was the acclaimed Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, and her mother, Jane Smith, was a well-known opera singer who also worked with Tennessee Williams (Williams was the best man at her parent’s wedding). By the time Kiki was in the fourth grade, her father had moved a mile away to set up his own digs. Still, Kiki and her twin sisters would spend most of their time preparing paper models for their father, while her mother made breakfast for the family, moving the kids and herself back and forth between both households most of the day. This experience infiltrates Smith’s work, endowing the sculpture with a sense of peripatetic humor, tenuousness, anxiety, and play: qualities that also contribute to Smith’s attraction to performance and theatricality.

Sueno, 1992,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Kiki Smith achieved recognition in the art world in the ’80s and early ’90s; her work of that period was instantly regarded for its hyper-feminist nerve. Her sculpture was shocking in its use of material (resin, beads, hair) and subject matter. Smith wove hair into a blanket (Dowry, 1990), while other pieces included a series of huge empty glass jars labeled with the names of bodily fluids such as urine, sweat, saliva, mucus, milk, and semen. Hollowed out figures in papier mache, dangled mid-air from gallery ceilings, strung up like victims of a lynching. In Untitled, 1989, the figure is seen from the waist down; an umbilical cord still attached to the child and mother. The baby is suspended in its own after-birth. Untitled looks as if it was cast directly from the mother’s body. The form is so personal and yet feels like an astronaut’s suit that can simply be put on for a walk outside the rocket into outer space. Smith constantly crosses purposes, mixing what is highly personal with a mask or costume.

Virgin Mary, 1992,
Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York, Photo: Ellen Page Wilson

Upon seeing Tale, 1992, the feminist critic Linda Nochlin said: "The first Kiki Smith piece I saw created a visceral shock… all attention is focused on the looming rear end, the filthy buttocks and the rectum from which emerges a literal "tail" of shit – or long intestine – or both." Audiences found these works repugnant, but were fascinated by them nonetheless.

Kiki Smith and her sister, Beatrice,
from Kiki Smith: Squatting the Palace,
Directed by Vivien Bittencourt/Vincent Katz.
Courtesy Checkerboard Films

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