Summary of Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith is one of the most widely recognized people in the art world today, and one of the most prolific artists of her generation. Coming of age during the waning days of performance art in the late 1970s, Smith and others of her era, such as Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, and Cindy Sherman, comprised the end of the second wave of Feminist art and found new ways to explore the social, cultural, and political roles of women. Smith was fascinated by figurative art and became known for her visceral, often disturbing artworks that depict the human body in detail, focusing on themes of women from mythology and folklore, or that reference her Catholic upbringing. Her unique vision, breadth of experience, and prolific output, which includes books, painting, sculpture, prints, and collaborations with other artists, cements her position as one of our most important voices of contemporary Feminist art.
- Surprisingly, Smith's art emerged from her upbringing within the spheres of Minimalism and abstract art. Abstraction was such an innate part of her world, it was "like air, completely natural...," and thus it did not hold the attraction for her as that presented by the novelty of representational art. In many ways the course of her development was diametrical to that of a great many artists, as early inventors of abstract art began as figurative artists who arrived at abstraction through efforts to distill and simplify their subject matter.
- Smith forged a unique path within Feminist art, concentrating on the human figure when abstraction and Performance art were more popular. Early on she made her creative statements primarily through visceral representations of men and women, and individual body parts, depicting in graphic detail the internally toxic effects of illness, long-held guilt, shame, or humiliation on the human body. In this way she brought further awareness to the AIDS crisis, while simultaneously dealing with the loss of her sister and many friends to the disease.
- The wolf in Smith's art is as detailed and naturalistic as her human figures, but it also symbolizes the wild woman, or 'she-wolf'. Found in many feminist and cultural narratives, she-wolves are women who act instinctively, according to their intuition. By depicting women and wolves together Smith represents the idea of 'Embracing one's Inner Wolf' - the self-knowledge and self-acceptance gained from deep personal introspection. Thus, her artworks may be understood on a multiplicity of levels - as highly detailed naturalistic figures, exploration of overlapping figures from different mythologies/religions, and as feminist dialogue inspiring self-acceptance.
- Other works by Smith depict woman as feral, responding to her most basic animal nature. In cultural and narrative traditions such figure types operated outside of societal boundaries and were often viewed by others with suspicion, even fear. In Jewish tradition, Lilith, the first wife of Adam shunned the world of male dominance to reside within the demon realm. The object of the story was to characterize this woman living on the margins of society as uncivilized, without male guidance, and therefore dangerous - even demonic. One sees, from such traditions their influence on cultural models, hence, the presence within many medieval fairytales of the old hermit woman/witch who lived in the forest.
Important Art by Kiki Smith
One of her early large-scale wax sculptures, Untitled explores the human body from within a variety of themes such as religion, procreation, life, and death. The sculpture consists of two life-size, nude figures (one female and one male) placed near one another, each held slightly aloft by vertical props. The anonymous-looking, unidealized figures are Caucasian, depicted in mostly naturalistic skin-tones with areas of red-tinted mottling on each (the male figure is of noticeably ruddier complexion). Both figures slump forward, eyes closed, hanging limply and puppet-like, as if dead. Milk has leaked from the breasts of the woman and runs down her torso, while semen has dripped down the legs of the man.
Although each figure is separate, the similarity of treatment suggests that they are to be viewed as a unified composition. Elevated as they are, their limp postures hint at ideas of death and suffering, perhaps crucifixion, while their gendered presence (along with their bodily fluids) invite associations with procreation and sexuality, and tie them to such religious concepts as Adam and Eve, and, ultimately, notions of Original Sin.
Examined more closely, Untitled characterizes Smith's self-confessed preoccupation with visceral functions associated with life giving bodily fluids - exemplified here by the milk and semen. In contrast to those secretions tied to procreation, the red tinted coloring on both figures (the male more so, imparting a somewhat ruddy hue to his features), certainly implies blood, but might also remind the viewer of the ancient burial practice of adorning the dead body with red ochre. Of further significance is the life/death dichotomy that blood represents as the vector for deadly diseases such as AIDS, from which her sister had recently died and which was then reaching epidemic proportions worldwide.
Smith's prosaic figures are entirely human, with the blemishes, defects, and weaknesses intrinsic to humanity. They challenge the viewer to see the body as more (and less) than beautiful, idealized objects of veneration or attainment; they demand honest self-reflection by the viewer, and acceptance of the frailty, carnality, and vulnerability that are inherent in living in the flesh.
Beeswax and microcrystalline wax - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Smith's interest in the elemental functions of the human body, particularly with female anatomy, merges with her Feminist perspective, and the iconography of her Catholic religion in her sculpture, Virgin Mary. She has appropriated the image of the revered matriarch of her faith and removed the luster generated by centuries of veneration to investigate those vital differences that place her above all women.
Nearly life-size, the wax figure stands, feet together, arms at her sides turned slightly outward, palms up. Her body is depicted nude, but without skin, so that the musculoskeletal system is all that remains, except that her head, hands, breasts, genitalia, and feet all retain their pale flesh. Her head is hairless, the facial features barely discernable. The impersonal nature of the figure, with its reddish-pink layers and bands of muscle, sinew and pale bone brings to mind anatomical models and medical textbook illustrations.
The open-arm posture, however, suggests images of a Eurocentric 'Virgin Mary', for which this sculpture is named, and is reminiscent of Orans figures of early Christianity. Familiar posture aside, Smith withholds Mary's traditional attributes: the halo, blue robe, bejeweled crown, lilies, roses, nursing infant, which generate an otherworldly sort of aura meant to elevate her above all women. Instead, the viewer is asked to acknowledge the woman beneath the veneer of holy mysticism. This Mary offers the viewer no gentle countenance or spiritual comfort. Rather, by removing her skin yet retaining those portions for which she was adored - her breasts, uterus and hands - Smith's sculpture reveals the affinity Mary shares with all women, the blood and bodily functions, the muscle, sinew, and bone. Once examined, the viewer is obligated to acknowledge that those functions for which Mary was revered (and for which women have, historically, been condemned by the Church as unclean) are what actually made her a woman, and that in her humanity she was simply flesh and blood. This leaves viewers with a conundrum, as they must decide either that the venerated figure was simply human or that a woman's body is actually sacred.
Beeswax, microcrystalline wax, cheesecloth, and wood - Pace Gallery
It is important in understanding Smith's contributions to art to examine other media beyond sculpture, which are far ranging. Smith had considerable experience in printmaking, having experimented with monotype, and screen methods since the late 1970s. But, her work in etching was new.
Sueño (Spanish for "dream") is a two-color intaglio print depicting a life-size figure curled into a distorted semblance of a fetal pose in the center of a large sheet of Japanese paper. It is impossible to discern the figure's gender (though Smith herself posed for it, while assistants traced her), reinforcing its enigmatic quality. Negative space surrounds it creating a sense of vulnerability. It curls awkwardly, with its back curved upward and slightly torqued, legs drawn up, its right foot tucked behind the left leg, arms pressed open from the shoulder, and its hairless skull facing downward in profile.
The figure appears to be without skin, its striated musculoskeletal system etched intricately in thousands of lines of black ink, heightened by tints of red. A single, thin outline hovers slightly away from the figure, traced most of the way around, representing the outer skin, similar to an x-ray. The stark contrast of ink against pale ground strengthens the aura of defenselessness, while the detailed linear treatment and braiding of the muscles highlights the unnatural pose.
Although Sueño parallels Virgin Mary in its depiction of a flayed figure, it leads the viewer to a different conclusion laced with irony. Although the viewer sees the figure in amazing detail, it is still completely anonymous. And, for all that this flayed individual appears very vulnerable, by virtue of its location within the composition, one also experiences a sense of discomfort, even unease due to the unnatural placement of limbs and unresolved posture.
Etching and aquatint on Japanese paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Smith's bronze sculpture, Lilith, is a continuation of her interest in female figures from folklore, mythology, and cultural narratives. In this work Lilith clings, insect-like, to the wall above the viewer's head. Her crouching, upside-down posture appears poised to flee. From below, shadows obscure most of her features, enhancing her inscrutability, and generating a sense of unease in the viewer. Head turned to the side, her startlingly intelligent, blue glass eyes peer over her shoulder, belying her feral posture and the dull brown finish of her face. Her cast bronze features are somewhat gestural, the surface rough and unrefined in places, characterizing the earthy, uncontrollable nature Lilith personifies.
According to Hebrew mythology, Lilith predated Eve as the first female in the Garden of Eden and was the first wife of Adam. In the stories, Lilith considered herself Adam's equal rather than his inferior, as they had both been created from dust, and thus, she would not submit to him. Consequently, Adam rejected Lilith and she fled into the demon world to reside, a symbol of female rebellion. Eventually, Eve would be created from Adam's own flesh, a submissive helpmeet faithful to her husband's authority.
Lilith is a study of contrasts. Created in the mid-1990s, while Smith was at the height of her exploration of strong women of biblical lore, she represents those traits considered by Church fathers to be dangerous for a woman to possess - the very antithesis of Eve. She is an empowered woman: independent where Eve is bound to Adam by her very flesh, assertive where Eve is submissive, and possessed of a carnal nature where Eve is modest.
Silicon Bronze and glass - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Lying with the Wolf
Lying with the Wolf is part of a short series of works on paper based on fairy tales. We can see Smith's shift in focus from the figurative art to animals in the late 1990s and then to their corresponding relationships in 2001. She often returns to the subject of the wolf, and of human and animal interactions. The intimate relationship between the woman and the wolf has roots in biblical, mythological, and feminist themes.
A large-scale, ink and graphite drawing on paper, a reclining female nude is depicted embracing a wolf couchant. The pair was rendered without background imagery to assign a specific context, but the wrinkled and patched paper segments resemble bed sheets and a pillow. Smith's interest in folklore, from ancient cultures through the Victorian era, often results in artworks displaying more than one theme at a time, as is the case with Lying with the Wolf. The woman can be identified in multiple narratives including St. Genevieve (the patron saint of France), Little Red Riding Hood, plus in the more obscure references to the She-wolf, the predatory side of womanhood.
Feminist narratives on La Loba (Spanish for both Wild Woman, and also Luminous Wolf) and similar themes encourage women to embrace the wolf-woman within to fully realize their own core of personal strength. Accessing the wolf-woman within requires one to abandon social and religious mores, and practice deep personal introspection in order to realize the true woman beneath long-practiced social strictures.
Ink and graphite on paper - Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
In Rapture Smith revisits the subject of human and animal relationships. When discussing her sculpture Smith stated, "It's a resurrection/birth story; 'Little Red Riding Hood' is a kind of resurrection/birth myth. And then I thought it was like Venus on the half shell or like the Virgin on the moon. It's the same form - a large horizontal form and a vertical coming out of it." "Virgin on the moon" refers to the iconic image of the Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon. She also compared her sculpture's concept to Raphael's The Birth of Venus and similar depictions. Emergence from water as a means of birth parallels the Christian rite of baptism, and the idea of the rebirth within the faith.
The female figure in this life-size bronze sculpture is emerging from the open belly of a recumbent wolf. Stepping forward, only her foot remains inside of the animal. The contrast in texture is striking - the fur of the wolf is heavily textured and coarse, while the woman's surface appears smooth and radiant, even new. Its title refers to the deeply held Christian tenet, described (but, not named) in the New Testament by Paul in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, that before the second coming of Christ all believers will rise up and be spirited to heaven, body, and soul. The term 'Rapture' appears elsewhere in the Bible to separate this event from the Second Coming of Christ. The resurrection message here is clear; rebirth and renewal comes from shedding the former self.
Yet the forms of Rapture hold an older, deeper meaning that is fundamental to the universal concept of Womanhood, because it also connotes a sense of strength and mystical union. The woman figure emerges nude from inside the powerful animal. She strides forth a goddess, a holy woman, and the archetype of La Loba, the wild woman, completely unafraid. The woman must embrace her true strength to find empowerment and achieve spiritual renewal. Thus, she rises from wolf reborn. So, Rapture is presented as an earthy and physical resurrection, but it represents a psychic and spiritual one, as well.
Bronze - Pace Gallery
Biography of Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith was born in 1954 to American parents living in Nuremberg, Germany. Her father was minimalist sculptor Tony Smith and her mother was Jane Lawrence, an American actress and opera singer working in Germany at the time Kiki was born. Her artistic lineage also claims her grandfather, who was an altar-carver. When Smith was still an infant her family moved back to the United States to live in her father's childhood home in South Orange, New Jersey. Family friends who visited the house included Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Tennessee Williams, and Mark Rothko. Art, especially contemporary art was present at every stage of Smith's life; she often helped her father make paper models for his sculptures in their living room, and in his studio, after school. Her younger twin sisters, Seton and Beatrice (Bebe), also followed creative paths. Seton is an artist, most noted for her cibachrome (now known as 'Ilfochrome') photography, and Bebe was an actress. They were a tight-knit family and Smith remains close with Seton today.
Unsure about what she wanted to do with her life, Smith stated, "As a child I prayed that my calling be revealed - but not with expectation and not with a destination. I became an artist because I didn't know what to do and I thought it was really fun to make things." With that, Smith enrolled at Hartford Art School in Connecticut in 1974. She dropped out eighteen months later and settled in New York in 1976. For the most part Smith is self-taught as an artist. She has talked about how her parents were not education-focused individuals, and that they had said to their daughters, "Oh, we thought you'd find yourself and your own interests."
After arriving in New York she became part of Collaborative Projects, Inc. (Colab), an artists' collective devoted to making art accessible through alternative venues. In 1979 Colab put together the "Times Square Show," which took place in a building that once housed a massage parlor. Exhibiting artists included Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring.
Several years later Smith and her sister Beatrice started training to become emergency medical technicians, and although they didn't complete the course the experience fueled Smith's interest in the human body. Her acquired knowledge is unmistakable in her wax sculptures and etchings, some of which are as detailed as medical school anatomical models.
Smith's first solo show was at the Kitchen Gallery in 1982. . Her sculpted female figures sometimes look unfinished, depicted without skin, or deformed or disfigured in some way. Smith stated, "Catholicism has these ideas of the host, of eating the body, drinking the body, ingesting a soul or spirit; and then of the reliquary, like a chop shop of bodies. Catholicism is always involved in physical manifestations of [spiritual] conditions, always taking inanimate objects and attributing meaning to them. In that way it's compatible with art." In Catholicism a relic is usually a body part of a saint or other holy figure, which people have come to venerate. These objects are housed in ornate reliquaries that dissimulate their contents. As Smith attests, there is a rather morbid obsession with the body in Catholicism, from the idea that followers (symbolically) eat the body and drink the blood of Christ, to the veneration of the body parts of saints, and to the images of suffering and death that are prevalent in churches throughout the world, the Crucifixion being the most recognizable. It is clear that all of these concepts directly influenced her work.
Smith has spoken often about the tragedies surrounding her life, "I grew up in a family with lots of illness. There was a family preoccupation with the body. Also, being Catholic, making things physical, they're obsessed with the body. It seemed to me to be a form that suited me really well - to talk through the body about the way we're here and how we're living." Smith's father died in 1980, her sister, Beatrice, died eight years later of AIDS, and her mother, Jane Lawrence, in 2005. The loss of family has had an ever-lasting impact on Smith's art.
Smith continues to live and work in New York. She lives a couple of blocks away from her sister Seton and they own a country home together. After the mid-1990s Smith shifted the focus of her subject matter; although there is still a thread of feminism running through her work, she seems to have departed from the "abject" figurative sculptures that she is known for. She delved into portraying animals and creating works that are based on fairy tales and myths. Some of her latest pieces are digitally woven tapestries portraying animals, women, spider webs, and stylized landscapes. She has stated that her work is "...no longer linear and the narrative imbued in them has fallen apart." Thus, her work may become even more interesting as it motivates the viewer to place their own stories within her works, and with universal themes - connecting with fundamental emotions in a way that rises above other artists.
The Legacy of Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith was one of the first artists to distinguish figurative work within the art world after years of abstraction and Minimalism had dominated the scene. She is considered a pioneer in restoring the figure as acceptable subject matter in contemporary art. She also paved the way for the "abject" in art, which in the past had often been met with critical uncertainty or outright negativity. New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, summed up Smith's style perfectly, "This is not a fashionable style; for much of the art world it never has been. And maybe that's why, more and more, her art seems to occupy a universe of its own, a floating world where art, like religion, is both high and low, gross and fine, and always about the only essential things."
Her impressive career continues today, and she has influenced generations of artists. Her works have communicated important messages, stressing the seriousness of the AIDS crisis. She continues to inspire artists, encouraging them to reclaim the female body from its historically assigned placement as the subject of the male gaze.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Kiki Smith
- After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary ArtBy Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott
- Kiki SmithOur PickBy Helaine Posner and David Frankel
- Otherworlds: The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki SmithBy Jon Bird
- Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & ThingsOur PickBy Wendy Weitman