Inside Kiki Smith’s Magical World
Over her four-decade-long career, artist Kiki Smith has made sculptures of body parts, tapestries depicting animals and the cosmos, and drawings of wolves and women—a strange confluence of the corporeal and the fantastic, with distinct feminist undertones. Smith is known as a leader of the downtown art scene that emerged in Manhattan throughout the 1980s, and many of her pieces have a dark fairy-tale quality—as if they could illustrate pages from the Brothers Grimm. I expected for the artist herself to have a bit of magic about her.
So I was surprised, on a recent visit to Smith’s East Village apartment, to watch her scratch at a piece of plexiglass for over an hour with hands tattooed with little turquoise dots. It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon, and Smith was working on a print for an upcoming exhibition at the Deste Foundation in Greece. Each dutiful scratch emphasized just how banal and unmagical the process of artmaking can truly be.
Kiki Smith works on a tapestry in the studio in her East Village home. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Smith said that the scratch marks would ultimately result in multiple prints and sculptures of a capricorn—the mythical figure with a goat’s body and fish’s tail that is also the artist’s astrological sign. Indeed, she’s known for her seriality, spinning concepts and images into one work after another, until something new piques her interest. Her sources of inspiration remain in flux, but Smith’s work itself tends to revolve around the body, death, mythology, and nature. Rumpelstiltskin may have been able to weave hay into gold, but there’s no alchemy to Smith’s practice: just hours of making, year after year.
When I visit Smith, she’s in the midst of multiple projects in addition to the Deste show, among them an exhibition entitled “Murmur” at Pace Gallery (through March 30th). She’s still finalizing the details.
“Sometimes I have things that I want to do,” she says breezily. “But in general, I just go through the space, and then that tells you what to do.” She sounds laissez-faire, and there is a level of unpredictability to her planning: One venue might inspire a full body of work, while another might require a grouping of previous series into a new conceptual whole.
Plans for Kiki Smith’s solo exhibition “Murmur” at Pace Gallery. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
There’s little art in Smith’s studio, so she shows me an image of a sculpture, bound for the Pace show, on her phone. It’s a jagged, triangular black form with multipoint stars emerging from the surface. It looks like a fallen-over Christmas tree: simultaneously stark, rough, and hopeful.
“That’s a wave,” Smith says. It doesn’t resemble any wave I’ve ever seen. Yugoslavian World War II monuments, called spomenik, inspired the shape, she says, showing me a picture of one of these, too, on her phone: two craggy stone hunks that emerge from the earth parallel to each other, then fan outward.
“I just think those sculptures are very beautiful,” she says. “They’re culturally very different from how we make memorials.” The water was a particular draw for Smith.
“Water holds memories,” she says. Her explanations, like her work, are often simultaneously lyrical and opaque.
Kiki Smith, Wave, 2016. © Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Smith was born into an artistic family. She was born in Germany, where her mother, Jane Lawrence, was working as an opera singer. In 1955, when the artist was one year old, her family moved to New Jersey, where she spent the remainder of her childhood. Her father, Tony Smith, was an artist, known for his own monumental black sculptures. He rose to prominence in the mid-1960s, and curator Kynaston McShine included him in “Primary Structures,” the Jewish Museum’s iconic 1966 show on American and British Minimalism. He also showed at the Venice Biennale and multiple Whitney Annuals (the predecessor to the Whitney Biennial) during his lifetime.
Smith began her artistic apprenticeship earlier than most of her peers: Along with her sisters Seton and Beatrice, she helped her father in his studio from a young age. In 1974, she enrolled in Connecticut’s Hartford Art School, yet she dropped out after just three semesters and settled back into Manhattan. Smith says she was around age 24 when she decided to become a professional artist.
“I didn’t know what else to do particularly. I liked making things,” she says.
Portrait of Kiki Smith in her New York home and studio. Below the couch, archival boxes store rubbings and templates from past work. Portrait by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
She joined an artist collaborative called Colab (short for Collaborative Projects Inc.)—Tom Otterness and Jenny Holzer were also members—and she worked odd jobs. Still scratching at the plexiglass between moments of eye contact, Smith says that one of these jobs, working as an electrician’s assistant, led her to consider life, art, and the body anew.
“Electricity is like a pulse,” she says. “Our bodies are electrical systems. Everything is going positive, negative, positive, negative. That gives you the chance to change your life. It’s not a continuum.”
The delicate work required a meticulousness that remains evident in her practice, and the insights it offered into power and the body worked their way into Smith’s first solo presentation, “Life Wants to Live,” at the alternative performance space The Kitchen in 1982. It honored women who’d fought back against male assailants—and killed them.
“If you made one thing and could really be satisfied, then you could stop and do something more interesting than sitting in your house scratching things.”
Smith sourced headlines about such incidents from the New York Post, then painted them on gauze. The feminist movement was still wrangling with how to deal with violent men and pornography, and fracturing as they disagreed about both issues; Smith’s work tapped into the zeitgeist. She recalls Andrea Dworkin speaking out against pornography—a topic that can still polarize the feminist community. Smith herself once handed out Valerie Solanas’s 1968 publication “The SCUM Manifesto,” which called for men’s destruction, at a former Lower East Side community center called Charas.
“They kicked me out because they said that it’s reactionary,” Smith recalls. In general, she now advocates for a gentler approach to life. “If you can avoid extreme anything, it’s probably better,” she says. “But not everyone is afforded that.”
Smith included her own body in the show via a series of X-rays she made with her friend, David Wojnarowicz—another major downtown figure, who received a posthumous Whitney retrospective last year. The pair visited a medical testing lab in Brooklyn (run by Marvin Numeroff, who was also a gallerist), turned on the machine, and captured themselves beating each other up. She remembers Numeroff telling her afterwards: “You should have been wearing shields for your genitals in case you want to reproduce.” “It was like, ‘Oh, thanks for telling us now,’” she says.
Kiki Smith, Untitled, 1989–90. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Reproduction itself was very much on Smith’s mind: She first visited Numeroff’s lab to look at sperm. “You’d look at them under the microscope,” she says, “and it’s so extraordinary because it’s just like life, teeming, moving.” Later, she made hundreds of lead-crystal sculptures of sperm (Untitled, 1989–90).
Years of body-part art followed: terracotta ribs, an iron digestive system, a glass stomach, a plaster pregnant belly. In 1988, Smith’s sister Beatrice died of AIDS; Wojnarowicz succumbed to the illness in 1992. Many have drawn connections between these profound losses and the work and exhibitions that Smith put out in the years that followed. But Smith downplays the deaths’ influence.
“You experience it privately, the loss of a person,” she says.
Smith says that she does think about presence and absence in her work. She also made panels for the AIDS Memorial Quilt (a massive public project, initiated in 1985, that commemorates those affected by the disease) for both her sister and Wojnarowicz.
Portrait of Kiki Smith by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Smith examined the body not just as a site of external violence, but as a vessel that could betray its owner. An untitled, red-ink-on-paper work from 1988 resembles a dismembered, bloody corpse hanging from the wall in pieces: torso, legs, and arms all dangle separately. Another horror film–worthy piece, Blood Pool (1992), is a wax, gauze, and pigment sculpture of a nude woman curled up on the floor. The glossy, uneven, red-and-yellow surface gives the appearance of a figure stripped of its skin. Its arms, sans hands, fold into its legs. The sculpture’s rawness and vulnerability make for a cringe-inducing viewing experience.
Smith looked beyond humans to animal bodies, as well. In her 1990 work Dowry Cloth, she stitched together patches of sheep wool and human hair. Hanging on the wall in a loose rectangular shape, the highly textured, unevenly hued piece resembles a dirty tapestry. In 1994, she met a scientist who told her “how many mammals were projected to be extinct in the next 40 years. I thought I should rather pay attention to that,” she recalls. Smith visited Harvard and began making drawings at the university’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Over the next few years, she sculpted blackbirds and wolves, incorporating them into prints and drawings, as well.
Kiki Smith, Woman with Wolf, 2003. © Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Kiki Smith, Head with Bird I (Side), 1994. © Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Academics interpreting Smith’s work have alternately viewed the animals as symbols or allegorical figures, as attempts to unite the human and non-human natural world, or as invocations of savagery. Yet Julia Bryan-Wilson, who wrote about Smith on the occasion of her 2018 exhibition at Haus der Kunst in Munich, opts for a different reading.
“Much of Smith’s art with animals introduces a queer uncertainty around sex difference,” Bryan-Wilson writes. After fixating for so long on gender and sexuality, she suggests, Smith opted to represent life in a way that transcended the binary.
Smith herself is more expansive and less prescriptive about her approach. “I think about animals in a much more abstract way than they might experience themselves,” Smith says. “I don’t think about their gender very often.” Yet she tells me that she did, recently, make a sculpture of mating deer—her old interest in reproduction and new life seeping into her contemporary practice.
Meanwhile, Smith was also creating small sculptures and drawings of women. They faint, entangle themselves in stars, and sit with their arms wide open in offering. Altogether, they create a kind of benevolent coven. If Smith separated organs from bodies in her earlier work, now, she was creating not just whole bodies, but entire feminine communities. In two bronzes, Born (2002) and Rapture (2001), Smith sculpted nude women conjoined with animals—a deer and a wolf, respectively. Sans clothing or intricate detailing, the figures look less contemporary than archetypal: part of a mythological brood of feminine spirits that includes characters both biblical (her 1994 sculpture Lilith resembles a nude woman mounted on the wall) and earthbound (an untitled work from 1992 resembles a crouching woman with outstretched hands).
Portrait of Kiki Smith by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
The way Smith discusses her practice is more happenstance than strategic. She tells me, for example, that it was “opportunity” that led her to begin making tapestries in the 2010s. Artist Don Farnsworth, a director of the Oakland-based studio Magnolia Editions, visited Smith and asked her if she’d be interested in working in the medium. Smith took on the challenge and ultimately created 12 vibrant tapestries, filled with blue skies and oceans, yellow grounds, and pink birds. She says that it offered her an opportunity to stretch outside of her typical size and aesthetic.
“I never thought I could make a picture so big,” Smith says. She adds that it was also an opportunity to make works with color, something she doesn’t frequently do.
A selection of the tapestries is on view at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery through June 2nd. Congregation (2014) merges many of Smith’s most significant interests in thread. The composition features a nude woman sitting atop a tree trunk, a web of branches emerging from her eyes. The spindly network also connects to a deer, squirrel, owl, and bat in the background. On the ground beneath lies a banner sprinkled with starry shapes. Here, Smith depicts a very literal interconnection between the female body and nature. Sky (2012) positions a nude female body curving into the star-filled night sky.
During my visit to Smith’s studio, another of the tapestries, Spinners (Moths & spider webs) (2014), lies on a table. It features a murky black-and-blue strip on the bottom, from which thin pussy willows emerge. Higher up, spiderwebs spin across the stalks in light, radiant, outward-reaching threads. Moths flurry in and out of the brush, creating a sense of motion and energy. Smith says the idea for the work began when she started taking care of silkworms for her artist friend Valerie Hammond. She had to feed them mulberry leaves everyday. When the creatures bloomed into moths, Smith took photographs and painted watercolors of them. She merged these images digitally with those of other wildlife, creating a life-sized drawing, which was then replicated in thread.
Smith explains that the scene could never actually occur in nature: Moths and pussy willows develop at different times of year. “They don’t make any sense,” she says of the works.
Detail of Kiki Smith’s home and studio. Photos by Daniel Dorsa.
Detail of Kiki Smith’s home and studio, featuring a print by Hilma af Klint (center). Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Smith isn’t generally interested in naturalistic representations, or a logical progression of her own practice. Instead, she infuses everything she makes with the feeling of the day, allowing interactions, news items, and photographs to provide her with temporary inspiration.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Pace show seems to obliquely address the #MeToo era. Picking up her phone again, Smith shows me a picture of a light blue–tinged, crosshatch-textured sculpture bound for the show. It resembles a three-dimensional drawing of a woman’s face (thin instead of spherical, more scratched into than sculpted), with wave shapes emerging from her eyes, mouth, and hair—rays that suggest embodied sight and speech. It seems like a metaphor for the torrent of speech and thought that women have offered in the past year, as their voices grow louder in both the press and in the U.S. government.
Installation view of Kiki Smith, “Kiki Smith: Murmur,” at Pace Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo by Kyle Knodell. © Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Smith has continued scratching at the plexiglass of the piece bound for Deste in between brief interludes to show images of other work. Eventually, she stops that work and begins whittling away at a small frog. “It’s not a very complicated frog. But I still sit for hours, taking off a little bit of wax,” she says. She’s making some rings for her husband, a beekeeper who lives upstate and wants one for each finger. She’ll place the frog atop one band; another gold band will receive a tourmaline stone. She places a ring in my hand and tells me to feel its heft.
Portrait of Kiki Smith by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Smith says that sometimes she’s not sure what drives this relentless, slow, and measured making. “I think, ‘Oh, you’re just making sure nothing else can happen in the entire day except your attention to the frog,’” she says. Artmaking becomes a kind of time-hurrying spell.
Other times, she’s driven by the fact that each new piece falls short of satisfying her aims. “If you made one thing and could really be satisfied, then you could stop and do something more interesting than sitting in your house scratching things,” she says.
With this, I leave her house, walking downstairs along celestially patterned wallpaper. Passing through her bright-red front door into the rain, Smith’s mystique is still intact.