Little Red Riding Hood
Kiki Smith is generative and genuine, and, like a King Midas, everything she touches turns into art. Sculptor, painter, printmaker, videomaker, photographer, she has been an artist all her life. Smith is constantly building and doing: house-painting, carpentry or electrical work, rendering quick sketches, knitting, making art. Her work varies in medium, size, and material. Smith’s portrayals of the human form, for which she is perhaps most famous, range in scale from life-size, hanging bodies to figurines.
Smith was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1954, then moved to a New Jersey suburb in early childhood. Growing up, Smith and her twin sisters, Bebe and Seton, were surrounded by artists. Her father, Tony Smith, was a renowned minimalist sculptor; her mother, Jane, was an opera singer and a close friend of Tennessee Williams. In a way, Tony Smith’s art was a family affair. Smith’s childhood was dominated by her father’s Abstract Expressionist crowd, with dinner-table talk about art and aesthetics. Their suburban lawn had a Tony Smith sculpture. So, unlike many kids who rebel against their middle-class upbringings, Smith had to adjust to an artist’s life. For her, it’s normal. Her journey from seeing and hearing about art to making her own was mostly a continuous one.
Early in her career, Kiki Smith joined the artists’ collective Collaborative Projects and contributed to the famed Times Square Show of 1980. She had her first solo show at the Kitchen in New York City in 1982. Her second, in 1988 at the Joe Fawbush Gallery on Broadway, was provocative and revelatory. She exhibited huge pharmacists’ bottles of bodily fluids—sperm, blood, urine, and human fetuses among them—which sat on a shelf on one side of the gallery. With this show, Smith burst onto the scene, fully formed imaginatively, like one of her strange, near-mythological figures. Since then, her influence on the art world—particularly on the treatment of women and the body—has been dramatic. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited “Prints, Books & Things,” a retrospective of twenty years of Smith’s wildly unusual and unique printmaking.
Kiki Smith’s surprising investigations and inventions are reflections of her: she’s intense and casual, friendly and private, shy and forthright. She discusses Catholicism as readily as she does sex and bodily functions. And, for one of the most influential artists of her day, she’s refreshingly modest and candid. As we talked on the second floor of her house in the East Village, Smith worked on a small clay sculpture. Her pet bird, Birdie Bird, flew in and out of the room.
THE BELIEVER: There’s a quality of isolation to your figures, which are often singular objects, set apart and shown in large spaces. Do you see them as alienated?
KIKI SMITH: I always see my sculptures as a little bit like statues. I don’t know exactly what statues are, but they’re not illustrations of life, but like separate entities in space; it’s what statues exist in. One of my favorite stories is Abraham playing with his father’s idols—his father was an idol-maker. Abraham breaks one and the father comes home, and he’s angry that it’s broken. Then Abraham says that one of the statues did it to the other. His father says that they’re just statues, and Abraham talks about believing in one god. But I always liked the staticness of the statue, maybe something like playing freeze tag, or playing statues when you were a kid. Or statues in churches. I think my work is in a different realm. It’s not a naturalistic realm. It is in another realm.
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