On the occasion of the traveling retrospective Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980–2005, the artist’s first full-scale survey (on view until February 11, 2007), Kiki Smith welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui and independent curator/writer Susan Harris to her home and studio to discuss her life and work.
Phong Bui: I’d like to begin our discussion with your father, the artist Tony Smith. In an effort to encourage your work with still life in your early twenties, he told you, “Don’t draw what you see, but from what you know.” This remark is very similar to Picasso’s statement, “I don’t seek, I find,” and contrary to Cezanne’s “I don’t find, I seek.”
You confessed that you don’t relate to Cubism; you have an impulse to mend things together rather than take them apart. I remember you mentioned Betsy Ross as an early inspiration. But would you consider that your early attraction to pattern and decorative arts, which involve a great deal of sewing and knitting—an activity traditionally associated with women’s handiwork—has to do with your lack of traditional training as an artist?
Kiki Smith: Maybe, but I don’t really think of it that way. I’m not trained as a craftsperson either. The truth is that there is no prescribed version of what artists are supposed to be interested in. They are just drawn to certain activities and they pay attention to this. That’s when the work can lead some place else. As far as Cubism is concerned, it’s been a model for time and form in relation to space that allows multi-dimensional experiences to be part of the process. As for me, I think mending is just a different type of activity that is not necessarily in opposition to Cubism; it’s just a different model that helped me to get started in my formative years.
The fact is, I did many other things in life before becoming an artist. I started artistic endeavors much later than most people.
Susan Harris: You have worked in many media throughout your career—glass, bronze, beeswax, papier mâché, prints, drawing, photographs, film—but it occurred to me when I was walking through the show with Phong two weeks ago that, essentially, you are an installation artist, in much the same way that I think Richard Tuttle is. Is that a fair reading of your work?
Smith: I think that in most installation work you get to play with more than one piece at a time. You make a conglomeration of things which then take on new meaning. There is a difference between a group of objects and a singular object. You make or break relationships. I have things resonate with one another, either by material or subject, or by feelings I had in response to the site specifically, and so on.
It’s true that I enjoy making installations in unfamiliar spaces, but I can’t do it all the time. At my print exhibition at MoMA two years ago, the curator, Wendy Weitman, and I organized the show thematically, but when we tried to do that at the Whitney it felt like a trap. In the end, it was organized chronologically. In general, I try to avoid as much planning as possible and react to the specifics.
Harris: That’s a good idea. We all have seen surveys of artists that have seemed sterile and unexciting as a whole, despite their being made up of terrific works. But I feel that an incredible energy emerges in the Whitney installation.
Smith: There is a linear structure at the Whitney that gives you a clear idea that you’re working or circling around different subject matters at a given moment. But then, I always like to break the reading of things so that it’s not so literal.
Harris: How much of the installation came out of the dialogue with the curators David Kiehl and Siri Engberg?
Smith: The whole thing was really a collaboration between all of us, including my old assistants, Joey Kotting and Carl Fudge. David made the architectural layout and he also specified which pieces he wanted included in the show and which ones he didn’t. For the most part, I just went along with what he wanted. To me it’s more interesting that way. You just get there, and you deal with the space and whatever you’ve got to work with.
For the installation at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which sponsored the exhibition, we took up part of the hallway too, so we had about 12,000 square feet all together, whereas at the Whitney Museum, it’s about 6,000 or 7,000 square feet. Architecturally and spatially, the two places are very different. The same thing can be said of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. The Whitney has many of my print and drawing works in their collection, and David was particularly sensitive to having works on paper in the show. That was actually quite nice for both of us.
Harris: While you’re sitting here talking to us and drawing at the same time, I’d like to discuss how you often blur the boundary between drawing and printmaking, sculpture, and drawing.
Smith: Well, often I am making drawings in order to make prints. Now I’m doing just the opposite, making drawings from the prints. Images can be a form of visual vocabulary, like the written word, and you can extract and place them in different orders. You can generate different things out of them as long as you feel the urgency. Maybe it has to do with when I was young, my father would make octahedrons and tetrahedrons, then recycle and reconfigure them into different forms. Perhaps I was exposed to that kind of process from very early on. Now I’m just doing the same thing with my drawings. I basically go where the process takes me.
Bui: It makes you realize how contrived the separate distinctions between drawing and printmaking can be. Although, that separation has become somewhat blurred in the last two decades.
Harris: Yes, especially when we think of Nancy Spero’s revolutionary work. She claimed works on paper as both painting and legitimate works of art, which I know has influenced you considerably. You said that you responded to Nancy’s repetitive use of image and structures like written words. However, in Nancy’s case, the impulse came out of her anger against the war, the oppressed role of women in society—not to mention in the art world. And more importantly, we must mention her attraction to Artaud’s poetry where language is dismembered and becomes a metaphor for bodily gestures to flow physically in space, without any constraints. Of course what she did took another decade or so until the general consensus accepted works on paper, and this occurred mostly because of outsider artists—Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, and then much younger artists who later worked solely on paper. So, materially speaking, when and how did you begin to explore and personally identify with that medium?
Smith: I initially used paper as a sculptural medium. When I was a kid, we had Japanese paper balloons for Christmas presents, and I wanted to make the body as an envelope. Then I thought I could make it like a paper balloon, so I just went to the store and asked them what paper balloons are made of. That’s when I learned about the rich history of paper, particularly in the Eastern tradition where it is deeply connected with domestic life. In Korea the covering of the floor is made with paper and then covered in oil. Then, in the mid-80s, I went to Morocco, where I saw incredible quilted tapestries. All of these influenced me to think about paper like some place between sculpture and drawing. Paper is such a fluid material to use.
Harris: I feel the same way. Can we talk about your installation at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia in Venice last year? You said that this setting inspired you to think about domesticity in 18th-century America.
Smith: A lot of the domestic objects and interiors of the United States were influenced at that time by northern Europeans, especially by the English and Dutch and Germans, though America’s domestic aesthetic was slightly more austere because of its puritanical history. As a kid I liked going to house museums a lot and I still do, so I thought it would be interesting to make something like a fractured fairy tale version of a house museum. It would be an American house museum on top of an Italian one. Initially the Querini was a house, and then they changed it into a contemporary art space and I thought it would be happier being a house again. That’s when I decided to make everything in relationship to what they had already in their collection.
I made ceramic figures of women based on the paintings on their walls by Pietro Longhi. The conglomerate history of time in the Querini raises an awareness that families of different time periods have all shared this domestic space. For nearly a year, I made most of the work at home. Then my assistants and I went to the house museum and painted and redecorated the whole place for about a month while installing my pieces—all in relation to the preexisting objects downstairs. Overall it was a very unique opportunity.
Harris: It was fascinating to see this interaction between the past and present. It made the historical collection seem more relevant, and it made your work come alive in a very exciting way. As a viewer, I could not help but observe all the work on equal terms.
In your interview with Lynn Tillman in the retrospective exhibition catalogue, you mention that domesticity produces a lot more anxiety in our culture than do images of horror. I wonder if that functions like beauty in art, which people still view suspiciously? Do you think there were any of those implied elements involved in the conceptualization and creation of the rooms in Venice?
Smith: Well, I think that when you look at a given moment carefully enough, everything will have meaning. You have to sort out what meanings are appropriate for you to adhere to, hold on to, and be involved with. And things that you’re not attracted to, obviously you can’t really invest yourself in them. It’s both a matter of chance and what you want to focus on. It’s a visual kind of situation, not exactly a rational process.
Bui: Listening to you talk while watching you draw puts me in kind of a meditative mood. I’m not even driven to ask you any more questions. [Laughter].
Smith: Isn’t that good? [Laughs].
Bui: I don’t know but I would like to shift to the subject of the body, which has been so predominant and consistent throughout your work. It has also been a serious preoccupation of artists in the latter half of the 20th century. Artists have used their bodies, or on occasion someone else’s, as both subject and object for their work: gesturing the body, which perhaps began with Yves Klein, Robert Morris, Joseph Beuys, then Nauman; painting the body, which was initiated by Pollock, then followed up by Happening artists such as Kaprow, Oldenburg, and later Carolee Schneemann; body as subject of a more transgressive and perhaps more ritualistic kind, led by Austrian actionists like Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl, which later took a different form by the L.A. performing artists Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, and Kim Jones (a terrific artist whose work has never been seriously dealt with in a scholarly text). The body used as boundary, which was brilliantly explored by Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, and a few others, has fostered the recent perception of the body as an extended and prosthetic field, as in the work of Lydia Clark and Mathew Barney. Where do you see your work in relationship to that lineage?
Smith: Although I’m aware of those artists’ work, I never thought about my work in that way at all. Sure, there is that history concerning the body, but for me Frida Kahlo and the women surrealists—painters like Lenore Carrington and Dorothea Tanning—were the first to use their own image, as well as their bodies, as they spoke directly from their personal experiences. Obviously, some of the male surrealists like Duchamp used their bodies a little, but I would say that I’m more interested in that tradition of speaking from one’s own experience through the body. It doesn’t necessarily have to be autobiographical in the sense of the personal, but no less personal than I think Frida Kahlo is personal. Besides, I’m more of a figurative artist, a representational artist, and so I don’t use my own body as a vehicle for performative means. I’m more interested in being in a body. I think there is a difference in that. It’s about my experiences, although I don’t intend for my work to be about me. I’m not interested in making autobiographical work.
Harris: Over time your work transcends personal biography—intentionally or not.
Smith: Perhaps. All I know is that I have my personal life at stake in my work. Most of the time I tell myself that I’m just trying to make my life better. I’m trying to figure out what’s happening in my life. Most of what’s happening isn’t exclusive to my experience, it’s just what’s happening in the grand scheme of things. I work through figuration and representational means.
Bui: Would you say this is comparable to what Francesco Clemente does with the figures in his paintings?
Smith: I don’t really know how similar our work is, but I do admire the fact that he has raised many subjects about being in a body and he does it in a representational form. His work deals with individuality and sexuality in a different way than mine does, and he certainly allows himself a lot of space and is willing to embrace many aspects of being here.
Bui: I’m bringing it up because Francesco has always been interested in a kind of art that has no scale. This is interesting because his free-flowing invention of the figures can exist in a different space and time as well as across cultures, whether here, Italy, India, or other places. In your work, you have made the body relatively proportional for a long time, but then came a shift in the last six or seven years where the figure became small. When and how did that occur?
Smith: Well, my father always told me that things have integrity of scale, and it’s very important to make things according to their sizes and proportions. But then in the last couple of years, I began to make things that have a doll-scale or votive sculpture scale. In other words, I’m making a sculpture of a small sculpture, not of a small person. It wasn’t really my intention particularly, but things obviously evolve beyond your control. When I made my installation at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia in Venice, I made a lot of these porcelain figurines in reference to those already there. Most people don’t ordinarily consider porcelain as works of art, and they’re still unpopular even for home decoration today. But they have an enormous place in figurative history. So I became interested in them partly because I wanted to see what kind of energy they held.
Harris: There is a definite harmony amongst your figures over time if one carefully follows the shifts in your work.
Smith: Part of it was just that I got sick of casting people’s bodies. The systems change, the technology has changed so that now you can take the small ones and blow them up big later if you want. The process is like making a big doll, not a figure. And it’s not like there’s an idea behind the change; it’s just circumstances that changed.
Harris: So the change was based on practical reasons.
Smith: Yes, I’ve worked with three foundries that have all closed. The main person I work with just had a stroke. This all changes how you work.
Bui: Does the change from an adult body to a child’s body suggest any reoccurring themes from your childhood memories? [Laughs]
Smith: [Laughs] I know what you’re getting at. No, I just got into thinking about the figures in their relationships to nature and animals. Actually, first I started making animals, then I made the human figures, then I thought “oh what would happen if I combine the two?” The place where these collide with one another is myth and fairy tale and religion.
Either in Greek mythology, the Bible, or folk tales, they all can be read in various ways. So it just seemed like a place to play around in that intersection between humans and animals. I’m not really interested in adolescence in the sense of the masturbatory self-involvement with people’s childhoods that one finds in the work of so many artists. I do not find this interesting. I’m 52 years old and I barely remember my childhood.
Bui: Even the paintings of Balthus, which understandably many American viewers cannot relate to because of the ingrained puritanical attitude…
Smith: That’s definitely not my interest. I’m more interested in, for example, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf and the image of the woman coming out of the wolf and what it means or doesn’t mean. And Alice in Wonderland drowning in her tears, and then all the animals fall into her tears and are drowning with her. I thought, “well that’s sort of like all of our self-involvement, drowning in our own self-involvement while polluting nature and killing all the other animals.”
But also, I just really liked the illustrations in Lewis Carroll’s book. I grew up with my father’s children’s books, which had wonderful 19th-century illustrations. I’m also interested in 1930s sculptures, as the last vestiges of neo-classicism in America or post-war Germany and all the folkloric architectural reliefs that go with it.
Harris: In the context of the show, it seems to me that the Mary Magdalene piece is a turning point where the figure, instead of having cuts or wounds on its body—which is so prevalent in your early work—is covered with marks like those on a tree trunk. These signal her unity with nature, which is what happens in your work thereafter!
Smith: Well, I was working in Munich doing glass in the early 1990s, when all over the city there are all these Rimschneiders—sculptures of Mary Magdalene portrayed as a hairy person. So I made her with a chain on her feet, like a bear breaking out of the circus. It’s partly influenced by things that already exist in early Renaissance sculptures.
Bui: Like Donatello’s Mary Magdalene?
Smith: Yes, but the German wood ones are much sweeter and more stylized. They are covered with hair in strange wavy patterns all over the body. After that, I got into making hair, and then I started to draw birds and animals.
Bui: So, in a way, the tendency to add other natural things or animals to the figures, parts or whole, perhaps signals a certain kind of metamorphosis (from _ Milky Way,_ a full figure with milk spurting out of her breasts, or in Untitled, a moth kissing a tongue, or in Daphne) that gives you a framework to associate freely with mythology, folklore, and fairy tales?
Smith: I wasn’t aware of the story of Daphne when I made the piece. She is actually in someone’s collection, but it can’t be moved because the branches are all made of glass.
Harris: Your interpretations of Mary Magdalene and Daphne being in harmony with nature may or may not coincide with mythology, folklore, or fairytales, but in the end what is important is that they are completely your own.
In Nancy Spero’s early work—in her Vietnam series of the late 60s, and her work throughout the seventies—the torture and victimization of women were the main subjects, until a shift took place around 1979 or 1980. Her work then became more optimistic and began to suggest that women were in control of their bodies and their destinies, which, in a way, suggested a move from the personal to the universal. Were you aware of this shift in her work as it parallels your own?
Smith: I never thought about it that way. I think that there are so many issues in relationship to the body that haven’t been dealt with in the history of figuration. What really matters is finding the appropriate voice for oneself.
Harris: How about Louise Bourgeois? Do you relate to her work in any way?
Smith: Sure, I think she’s one of our greatest living artists. She covers immense ground, and as she became more visible in her late age she had access to a kind of authentic authority and many different vocabularies. When Louise Bourgeois became more visible in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had already come into my own work, I think the artists once removed from my own generation were the ones most visibly influenced by her work. She has been very fluid throughout her career. She has an inherent expressionism in her work that is very powerful. She is certainly a great printmaker and extremely economical in her use of images.
Bui: I know you love birds, which reminds me of a story told by Vasari about the young Leonardo who would often go the market and buy caged birds, only to release them. And in one of the pages in the notebooks, besides all the scientific notations, there is a caged bird drawn with the inscription: ‘The thoughts turn towards hope.’ I wonder if there is any symbolic significance in your portrayal of birds or any other animals for that matter?
Smith: First of all, animals are losing their environment, disappearing, and dying because they don’t have sustainable habitats. I want to think about our interrelated physical relationship with them. Animals are filled with symbolic meaning like everything else. Our imaging of animals is very similar to the construction of our own identities and our sense of being. Making images of them allows me to play around with those meanings, but they aren’t bound to any particular messages. Since I’m not a particularly reflective person, it occurs to me to do something, and I think “oh that’s probably what I should do.” I take it as face value that that’s what I’m supposed to do. Then I see what happens. It’s something that I learned from my mother, who always told me to trust my intuition above all.
Bui: In Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millienium there is a chapter on multiplicity, which retells the legend of King Charlemagne: One day the King falls in love with a maiden girl and the whole court freaks out because a noble person is not supposed to fall in love with an ordinary person. Well, because of a peculiar illness she dies, and he becomes obsessed with her corpse, and he won’t bury it, so he brings it into his bedchamber to sleep with him. Of course, this is macabre behavior, so many days pass, and finally the archbishop—who snuck in one night and examined her body—discovers a ring lying in her mouth. He puts it on his index finger, and the next morning, the king falls in love with him. And then, the court freaks out again. Now he’s exhibiting homosexual behavior, so the archbishop doesn’t know what to do. He goes back to the palace and throws the ring into lake Constant, where the king subsequently comes to contemplate the moon every night. That’s the end of the story. One event leads to the next but it’s the ring that ties the story together. Maybe your work is tied together by your intuition in a similar way.
Smith: [Laughs] Sure, why not? Especially because it can make such a nice story.
Harris: That’s how it feels sometimes: life as a continuous flow without the need for much planning ahead. Anyway, can we shift the subject to your parents? I was reading about how when your father died, you made all your work about death for about five years. And then you made art about how life comes out of death. I was very touched when you said in Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt’s film that, when your mother died, you felt that it was a very optimistic death. You said it wasn’t a separation—that you were loved by her and you loved her.
Smith: My mother had a nice death. That’s just how she was. Although I’m very close to my sister, niece, and friends, it has been very different and strange not having my mother. It is like being completely untethered. You’re just floating out in the universe on your own. For a long time I thought, “well nothing means anything to me anymore.”
And even my work—which I would never think about so much in relationship to my mother (I wasn’t showing her everything I was doing all the time)—I realized was still all connected to her. In some way, she was still my most important audience.
This last year has been quite odd. I started making all these drawings, right after my mother died, based on images of women and rainbows I had seen in Turin. I made pictures of women with animals and butterflies and logs and stars. It became sort of cosmic, which in some way is my own means of dealing with her absence. And, at the same time, it’s incredibly liberating not having parents. You can just fly off the planet in any direction and there isn’t that constraint. But in the end, you have to be your own adult.
Bui: Did your mother and father ever pressure you to have a family like most parents do?
Smith: No, they both wanted my sisters and me to do what we wanted to do.
Harris: The last room of the Whitney exhibition is quite beautiful. I was so happy to see the flower works you recently completed that you had dedicated to your mother.
Smith: They were there partly because I wanted to include something new as part of the show in the last minute. Of course, you only care about the newest thing that you’re making. I also thought it would be nice to end the show with some color, since my work often only uses the color inherent in the material.
SUSAN HARRIS is co-president of the Board of the International Association of Art Critics, United States section (AICA-USA). She is an independent scholar and curator. Her most recent project is Managing Editor, Unfinished Memories: 30 Years of Exit Art, Steidl, 2016.