The Way to Be: A Memoir
(Getty Research Institute, 2023)
The story goes that Barbara T. Smith, just beginning to realize her career as an artist, attempted to make lithographs at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles in 1966 and was turned away. In response to being unable to print there, she rented a Xerox 914 machine, set it up in her living room, and began making prints. “I printed texts with imagery. I replicated all manner of objects,” she writes in her memoir The Way to Be. “I wrote in lipstick on the glass, and I made images of my body, face, and hands, which became forerunners of my body performance work. I could not stop.” Publishing was the seeds of Smith’s work as a performance artist, whose performances during the seventies and eighties in Los Angeles were deeply tied to the women’s movement and the advent of performance art. She collaborated over the years with Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Allan Kaprow, and Dick Kilgroe, at important artist-run spaces including the Women’s Building in Los Angeles and Franklin Furnace in New York. But, importantly, it started with books. Smith’s experimental Xerox prints became her well-known series of artists’ books: the “Coffin” books, which featured the Xerox pages slipped into plastic sleeves in black binders. “On an unconscious level, I could see that my marriage was at an end,” Smith writes about these works in her memoir. “I was going to lose my family. I would never be the same. These books were coffins and memorials at once.” The artist books are some of the opening works included in Smith’s first major museum exhibition, an “autobiographical exhibition” featuring performance documentation, recreated settings, and ephemera, much from the Getty’s own extensive holdings of her archive. In lieu of an exhibition catalogue, Smith’s memoir serves as the show's accompanying publication, foregrounding the personal nature of her practice, which places her own body and lived experience as material, even at times to her own detriment.
The exhibition, The Way to Be, on view at the Getty Research Institute through July 16, is organized chronologically, like her memoir, beginning with a small entryway with childhood ephemera, memorabilia, drawings, and family videos. As her memoir opens, “I was born into a charmed California life in 1931.” This was until her awakening, when she began her life as an artist. The first gallery of the exhibition features the evidence of these early explorations: Xerox artists’ books lying open in vitreens alongside notes for her process and an actual Xerox 914 machine, emphasizing the impracticality of keeping one in your home. While visitors cannot touch or hold the books, the display of 11 Xerox books both captures a sense of how devoted Smith was to this process early in her career, while also limiting the selection enough to give the viewers a digestible amount, allowing us to read and spend time with the works. On a floating shelf, just below eye level, Coffin: Where Did You Get That Polka-Dot Blouse?, an accordion Xerox book, stands unfolded, showing the artist in various stages of toplessness as she unbuttons her polka dot blouse and presses her body against the copier bed—her hair, hands, and face visible on varying pages in the margins and edges. In other cases, the books show the artist’s own face or her son’s, with various objects and overprints obscuring them in surreal ways. Placing the artists’ books first in an exhibition primarily devoted to performance is both practical—following chronology—but also prioritizes the role of publishing in Smith’s performances. As she writes, “Soon I realized many [of the prints] were books. Books are physical artworks that must be held to be seen, which is an action, rather than mere passive viewing. They are intimate and personally engaging, performative.” In many ways books were Smith’s first performances.
The rest of the exhibition documents and restages aspects of Smith’s performances, including her Field Piece fiberglass light installation and Ritual Meal, which was the first of many of Smith’s performances centered on “communion/meals and using food as a medium.” Both these works feature prominently in the memoir, which documents the initial ideas for the works, various attempts at creating and fabricating them (including failed attempts), and their eventual evolution and completion. Scholars looking for detailed documentation and explanation will be disappointed by Smith’s frank and opinionated recollections. Far from factual descriptions, the book takes the form of bursts of I statements, memories, and accounting of emotions and apprehensions about her developing identity as an artist, the loss of her status as a wife and mother, and the string of friends and lovers she encountered along the way. Some of the more poignant moments recount her struggle to fully embrace her artistic career at the cost of losing custody of her children and struggling to maintain a relationship with her daughters. Again and again, Smith describes her performance practice, which often included nudity and sexual content, at odds with the parameters set for motherhood.
The writing style is at times repetitive and dry; it conveys the feeling of reading a journal, where the audience—oneself—is somewhat already in the know. Smith lists what happened, who was there, and how she felt about it, without flourish or context. Figures are introduced as quickly as they disappear from the narrative, and often the artist recalls details that don’t clearly relate to her art practice. The book is far from a historical account of her art, making it all the more unusual to accompany her exhibition, but all the more fitting to her art practice, which similarly prioritizes feelings, emotion, and lived experience over all else.