How a Dissatisfied Housewife Was Saved by Radical Performance (and a Xerox Machine)

Kathy Noble
Mar 5, 2018 9:31PM

Barbara T. Smith, Just Plain Facts, 1965-66. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.

Barbara T. Smith, Xerox, Birth, 1965-66. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.

In 1958, in the midst of an identity crisis, Californian artist Barbara T. Smith visited a psychotherapist for the first time. Smith, who was in her late twenties and married with children, later described the isolation she experienced as common. The first generation of American, college-educated women who married into domestic servility went into crisis; that crisis, in part, gave rise to second-wave feminism. Smith had previously attended Pomona College and studied painting, art history, and religion; she married two years before graduating in 1953, and quickly bore three children.

Smith’s therapist radicalized her, introducing her to Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and a variety of other writers and theorists. Psychotherapy prompted an artistic revolution: “My entire consciousness had changed,” Smith said.

In the mid-1960s, as her marriage broke down, Smith made a radical move to install a 914-model Xerox copy machine in her house to make art. Xerox offered revolutionary technology to ordinary people, enabling them to make copies, transfer information, and self-publish—a scan from a glass plate caused electronically charged particles to fall in the exact same configuration as the original.

Barbara Smith, Feed Me, 1973. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.


Xerox enabled Smith to make art out of her everyday life during the trauma of her divorce in 1968, and the ensuing loss of custody over her children. She produced prolific numbers of images which she bound into books, photocopying everyday objects, plants, and ephemera—as well as her own body, and those of her children. Some were printed on white paper, others on pastel pink, baby blue, and light orange sheets, creating delicate, haunting, fragmented images—faded memories of moments in time. One could argue that with the Xerox machine, Smith created some of the earliest performances staged using a photocopier, documenting her own body as an erotic object in works like Do Not Touch (1966), a grainy image of her exposed clitoris.

Post-divorce, Smith enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. There, she met an important group of peers who were experimenting with performance, media, and site-specific work, including Nancy Buchanan and Chris Burden—with whom she founded the artist run gallery F-Space, where Burden’s infamous performance Shoot was staged in 1971.

Smith’s interest in performance and interdisciplinary work was cemented when she attended an experimental theater workshop led by Judson Church dancer Alex Hay. Hay’s workshop pushed Smith to realize that the curious actions forming in her mind were valid. Emboldened, Smith created the environmental sculpture Field Piece (1968–72), part of which was presented at F-Space in 1971, before the full installation was shown at Cirrus Gallery. The work comprised 180 semi-flexible, fiberglass, nine-and-a-half-foot tall columns in translucent colors—clear, orange, pink, yellow, and violet—that glowed via an internal light source, forming a dense, delicately industrial forest. Each column also contained a speaker, activated by sensors underneath a foam floor by the audience (also linked to the light) to emit a vibrating drone sound, making the viewer an integral part of its network.

Barbara Smith, photo from her BIRTHDAZE performance, 1981. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.

A move into live performance shortly thereafter found Smith exploring the boundaries of audience-performer power dynamics with Feed Me (1973), staged at San Francisco’s Museum of Conceptual Art as part of the event “All Night Sculptures.” For one evening only, Smith sat nude inside the woman’s bathroom, which she outfitted with books, a mattress, pillows, and things the audience could “feed” her with: food, wine, marijuana, and massage oil. (An accompanying tape loop simply intoned “feed me, feed me.”)

Smith remained in control, as the participants—only one allowed in at a time—were instructed to negotiate her permission before taking action. Various accounts, by Smith and others, relay what occurred, from discussion and massage to consensual sexual intercourse with several men. Smith described the work as an act to create a positive, affirmative situation—using “feed me” to have her needs met, instead of enacting the stereotype of the nurturing woman. The performance was made in opposition to the male dominance she experienced in heterosexual relationships.

Feed Me could equally be viewed as a reductive act of sexual objectification, couched as radical feminist act, yet this is unfairly simplistic. Just a year later, Marina Abramović invited an audience to do whatever they wished to her during the performance Rhythm 0 (1974), resulting in sexual assault, and ending when a viewer placed a gun in her hand and tried to use her finger to pull the trigger. The difference between Smith’s affirmative experience and Abramović’s abusive nightmare are stark, yet both address the troubled power dynamics of female sexuality within a patriarchal society.

The positioning of women artists in relation to their male counterparts, and the largely male institutions both inhabited, was the subject of another iconoclastic performance by Smith: Birthdaze (1981), staged on her 50th birthday at the Tortue Gallery in Los Angeles. Smith invited male artists to collaborate by performing as alter egos—with Kim Jones (as Vietnam veteran Mudman), Paul McCarthy (as an androgynous bad boy), Allan Kaprow (as a sage patriarchal figure), and Victor Henderson (as a tantric sex partner), alongside Smith’s ex-lover Dick Kilgroe. Each performer had played a part in her artistic and personal transformation, blurring the boundary between art and real life.

Dressed as a feminine 1950s housewife, Smith began to tell her formation story—from sheltered homemaker to radical feminist artist and spiritualist—in a parody of the narrative of her life. The performance was structured in three parts: The first was a humorous take on Smith’s early experiences, in which McCarthy and Jones pawed at her purple dress on the gallery’s patio, groping her until she escaped over a fence. She soon returned on a motorcycle driven by Kilgroe—wearing Levi’s, a checked shirt, and a leather jacket—to play out an emotional conflict in which Kaprow, her artistic father figure, sat center stage on a chair, watching her passionately embrace Kilgroe.

Part three, staged in a small room inside the gallery, saw Smith guide Henderson through a long tantric sex ritual behind a translucent veil. Tantric transcendence aspires to the unification of polar opposites. Throughout, Smith directed the male artists to perform stereotypical tropes of masculine identity, to expose the systems of the male dominated art world she inhabited. Ultimately, through the tantric ritual—for which she acted as the teacher—Smith became a shamanic presence, embodying a kind of feminist quasi-spirituality, in an attempt to transcend these prescribed roles.

Barbara T. Smith, Untitled, 1965-66. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.

Throughout her career, Smith staunchly rejected the Modernist idea of the disembodied artist presenting an object to the disengaged spectator. As such, many of her performances were collaborative or participatory, such as Ritual Meal (1969), a highly staged dinner performance, or Celebration of the Holy Squash (1971), a parody of a religious ceremony in which a common vegetable was suddenly revered, poking fun at Californian New Age spirituality.

Smith also paid three women who frequented a park bench near Grandview Gallery to sit on a bench inside the gallery for a month, in Intimations of Immortality (1974)—a reaction to how elderly women, particularly the homeless, alcoholic, or addicted, existed on the invisible margins of L.A. society.

These pioneering performances are the overlooked predecessors of relational aesthetics that developed in the 1990s—when Rirkrit Tiravanija served food in a gallery, for instance, or Santiago Sierra paid a small group of homeless women the price of a night in a hostel to stand facing a wall in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern for a single day in 2008.

Barbara T. Smith
Untitled 4, 2016
Cirrus Gallery and Cirrus Editions Ltd
Barbara T. Smith
Untitled 3, 2016
Cirrus Gallery and Cirrus Editions Ltd

Since Smith’s early pioneering performances, she has continued to develop radical interdisciplinary work, using the material of her life to explore the politics of social systems. For example, she experimented with videophone technology for The 21st Century Odyssey (1991–93), in collaboration with her partner Dr. Roy Walford at Biosphere 2 in Arizona; in 1998, she performed The Audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, a monologue in honor of her son, Rick, who had died of AIDS. More recently, Smith used a flatbed scanner to capture multi-layered images of her face, hands, body, and other elements.

Much of the history of performance, and its theorization, involves an exploration of what authentic identity—versus performed identity—might mean. Smith’s work addresses the often polarized, fragmented identities that we perform, and considers how to bring the interiorized authentic self and the exterior constructed self together. Overall, the artist’s driving goal has been to examine socially constructed patterns of behavior, to create situations in which the participants break or transcend the internal feedback loops that control their own actions—and, importantly, to address the power structures we inhabit and perpetrate.

Kathy Noble