Jersey Crows, 1995. Silicon bronze, 16 × 19.5 × 23.5 in., 27 units, dimensions variable. Photo: Ellen Page Wilson, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Personal Curiosity: A Conversation with Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2016. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Kiki Smith’s pencil hardly leaves the paper as she simultaneously answers questions, responds to a stream of assistants, and decides what to have for lunch. Scratch, scratch, scratch…the crisp sound of sharp lines filling in the hairs of a large fox permeates her sun-drenched Lower East Side New York studio. This rhythmic beat, which sets the haphazard and serendipitous into meaningful motion, is much like her life-long journey through art—an atonal call and response between creative intuition and resourceful invention. Smith, who was awarded the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award this year, occupies a special place in the history of American feminist art. From early works dealing with bodily functions, AIDS, race, gender, and mythic iconography to more recent works dealing with transcendent images of woman as an emanation of nature and the cosmos, Smith has proven herself to be an artist who defies easy categorization. Her works span all media – from drawing, printmaking, painting, and sculpture to ceramics, jewelry, and tapestry – and have earned her international recognition and a place in the collections of every major American museum, including MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as international institutions such as Tate Modern, the Irish Museum of Art, and the Israel Museum.

Virgin Mary, 1992. Wax, cheesecloth, and wood with steel base, 67.5 x 26 x 14.5 in. Photo: Ellen Page Wilson, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Joyce Beckenstein: In After the revolution, Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (2007), Eleanor Hartney mentions that you were named “a living icon” in 2003. John Perreault then called you “the current patron saint of bohemia.” How did you regard those daunting credits then, and what do you think of them now?

Kiki Smith: I never think about things like that. I don’t think about achieving things. I just make things that hold my curiosity. I was carried in a procession from MoMA to PS.1 because Francis Alÿs asked me to participate in his event. I did so because I admire his work very much. It’s scary to think of oneself as an icon – I don’t think that is what the world needs, though there could be more dangerous things.

JB: A lifetime achievement award is by nature retrospective, so I’d like this conversation to emphasize highlights of your career – experiences and works that were most significant for you. For starters, what was it about the ‘70s and ‘80s that set your focus on the body? Did it have to do with the experimental artists surrounding you at the time?

KS: No. A friend who worked at the Strand Book Store gave me a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. That is what influenced me to make pictures of bodies and gave me a language with which to express and discover myself. There are so many ways to think about what happens within oneself, individually and culturally. In addition to pieces addressing bodily fluids, I made small sculptures of hands and fingers with fungus growing. Other works with cut-up arms and legs came from my having a disjointed sense of my own life. But I was also influenced by Leon Golub and his non-romanticized version of violence in connection with America’s involvement in Central America, which resulted in the disembodiment of people. When I realized the larger, horrific reality of other people’s lives, I no longer wanted to use that language in a subjective way as a metaphor for myself.

Lilith, 1994. Bronze and glass eyes, 31.5 × 27 × 17.5 in. Photo: Ellen Page Wilson, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Pace Gallery.

JB: Your work with the body has been described as a linear progression, one that you recently told Chris Lyon “fell apart” and went into a free fall. How do you see this “progression,” and why the free fall?

KS: The work wasn’t linear in terms of being directed. It was linear when considered in retrospect. I made lots of works about orifices – things leaking, about the boundaries between the self and the outside world, representations of different systems. I started painting cells within the body, and then went on to body systems. When I addressed the skin as a system, it led to an unexpected involvement with figurative representation.

The free fall happened in the mid-‘90s, when the work with bodies no longer engaged me. I went back to things I’d done earlier, before the body representations. They included making drawings, paintings, and sculptures using botany as a source, as well as various small animals and insects, like worms and ants – works that embraced the broader natural world. Pieces such as Getting the Bird Out or Jersey Crows came out of that return to nature.

Mary Magdalene, 1994. Cast silicon bronze and forged steel, 60 × 20.5 × 21.5 in. Photo: Ellen Labenski, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

JB: The body was an overriding subject for women during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Were there particular women artists you were drawn to?

KS: While I was growing up, I was attracted to Eva Hesse and how she played between the body and abstraction. I was also attracted to Lee Bontecou and Frida Kahlo. Many of my friends during the ‘80s from COLAB had social content in their work. Mexican and Russian revolutionary artists had influenced them. I was a marginal member of Collaborative Projects, and at the time, I was attracted to artists such as Sonia Delaunay who made works that had functional applications or that blurred the lines between design and fine art.

JB: Philippe de Montebello spewed venom when he saw Tale (1994) – the sculpture of a woman crawling on all fours, leaving a long trail of feces behind her. What motivated that piece, and do you think it still triggers such a charged reaction today?

KS: I have no idea what goes on in other people’s brains. The work was a response to how people grapple with shame, grief, and complicity in one’s own demise. I was young then and trying to contend with that in my own life. I thought about what one inherits from childhood – lugging all this garbage around, carrying your shit from the past. There is a shame and a danger if one can’t or doesn’t cut loose from such things, but reiterated them. For me, it was a time of transition.

De Montebello criticized the work when I showed it at the Whitney, a moment that coincided with former Mayor Giuliani’s threat to close down the Brooklyn Museum because of Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary featuring elephant dung. I wrote an article for the Daily News about how the Virgin Mary is an active historical construction, and how Christianity’s ability to adapt images to older iconographies of diverse cultures contributes to its success. Dung, for example, is about fecundity and fertility. A life-generating material, it is a fundamental source of fuel in various parts of the world – a life-affirming image.

Daughter, 1999. Nepal paper, bubble wrap, methylcellulose, hair, fabric, and glass, 48 x 15 x 10 in. Photo: Ellen Page Wilson, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

JB: That brings us to your Catholic upbringing. Much of your work is inspired by medieval art, yet there are many double messages relating to how we negotiate what we’ve been taught versus how we see the world. Do these ambivalences play a role in your work?

KS: I wasn’t raised with a strong Catholic upbringing. My mother converted to Catholicism, then went on to Hinduism and Buddhism later in her life. I was just very attracted to the artifice of belief. I’m interested in how belief becomes object; how the rich vocabulary of the spiritual becomes manifest in Catholicism and other belief systems. A number of my works speak to this, such as Speak to Yourself (1985), Mary Magdalene’s basin at the feet of a medieval stock. Several paper works relate to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, who speaks of the form of the body being separated from its matter. To express this idea, I made gampi paper sculptures of bodies based on Japanese paper balloons, and then I created large ink drawings to symbolize the matter.

JB: And what about the biblical women in your work – Lilith, Eve, Mary, Mary Magdalene? Why do they figure so prominently?

KS: I grappled with the contradictory meaning of those images. Some of them are useful. Mary, for example, offers unconditional compassion and love. But she is devoid of sexuality; and that’s something that hinders people in their private lives because it disconnects sexuality from spirituality. Lilith came from making sculptures out of paper mâché, which allowed me to attach her to the wall – an opportunity to make a figurative piece outside of its traditional relationship to gravity.

Rapture, 2001. Bronze, 67.25 × 62 × 26.25 in. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

JB: In works such as Daughter (1999), Rapture (2001), and those that find Little Red riding hood transformed into a wolf, women merge with their pagan mothers – goddesses or figures from childhood fairytales. Do you think of them as critics do, as mythic?

KS: they are all mythic cultural stories. In our society, there is another disconnect – nature and women are perceived as separate from intellect. This separation has disastrous consequences.

JB: You conjure beautiful ways to deal with pain and destruction – it creates enormous tension in your work. Can you comment?

KS: I work intuitively, and you have to trust your own knowledge. You learn about the properties of different materials, and it all becomes a second language. You use materials like you use the spoken word. You have different vocabularies and resources within you, and sometimes there’s an amalgamation where they go together – it could take 20 years.

Cathedral, 2013. Jacquard tapestry, approx. 116 × 75 in. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

JB: Yes, but you are able to leap across an incredible range of media – bronze, paper, glass, paint, wax, found objects, prints, glass, tapestry. Were there subjects that worked better for you in one medium than they did in another?

KS: No, I’ve often used the same image in a multitude of materials and scales. I’ve been attracted to many different ways of making things, and how different methods enhance vocabulary. Once you make a decision, there is just work involved, like coloring or factory work. After a while, things get tedious – I can’t sit here filling in hair all day, but the repetition of the motion attracts me, it’s relaxing. I learned from artists exhibiting in the ‘70s that it is through the physicality of the medium that meaning is derived. The prints, sculptures, and drawings of the wolf, for example, present three different readins and dimensions.

JB: Both of your parents were artists, and you grew up surrounded by many of the giants of 20th-century art. How did they – particularly your father, the sculptor Tony Smith – influence you?

KS: I became an artist because I didn’t know what to do, and I liked making things. My father was the greatest influence on me in terms of my seeing the possibilities of being an artist. He was an architect and painter before he started making sculpture; he could understand the geometry of what he was doing, so he could order it to be built at a foundry. He worked very intuitively and very methodically, and I learned from him how intuition and pragmatism go together in the making of something. My mother, who was an actress and singer, was a free-thinker and non-judgmental; she imbued us with a sense of courage to embrace life’s unknown possibilities, which is certainly helpful in making objects.

Underground, 2012. Jacquard tapestry, approx. 119 × 78 in. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

JB: You’ve been making many tapestries over the last five years. How did that come about?

KS: The first time I went to Europe, I went to Angers to see the Apocalypse Tapestries. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to make a tapestry until Magnolia Editions, in California, asked me to make Jacquard loom woven pieces.

JB: Sounds like an elaborate operation.

KS: It’s a process. I make a traditional life-size cartoon, a collage that takes a month or more to complete. It’s then scanned into a computer, and I work via Internet with Magnolia to transform the image. Then I do hand-painted corrections on a smaller print, and the final version is woven on a Jacquard loom in Belgium. The form offers wonderful opportunities to work with decorative elements, color immense detail, and nuance. It’s an enormously pleasant collaboration between the printers, the weavers, the craziness of the loom, and myself.

JB: And do the subjects in these tapestries – like turkeys – link to earlier works?

KS: There is a consistency in oneself that makes one’s life recognizable, and one sometimes has a propensity or an attraction to the same kinds of things over time. It doesn’t always move in a linear manner, but, certainly I revisit the past and have similar predilections. It doesn’t necessarily fit with early works – like life, it doesn’t have to fit together.

The female figures in the tapestries are about trying to make an intersection between medieval European representations of the world and the pageantry and spectacle of the 1920s. The recent tapestries are more about nature because I’m spending time away from the city, and it’s very exciting to see animals moving about. It’s important to pay attention to them. I live upstate, and I love turkeys – they are beautiful.

Bough, 2009. Bronze, 96 x 235 in. Photo: Richard Nicol, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

JB: Tapestry is a relatively new process for you. Are there others?

KS: I am most intrigued with the intersection of drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. For the last several years, I’ve been making low relief bronzes that hover slightly off the wall. The process that I use comes from making etchings; I either make printing plates or woodcuts and press them into clay or draw directly in clay and make wax casts, which I collage together. They are then cast in bronze.

JB: Tomes have been written about you. Tell me, are there things that you think people don’t get about Kiki Smith?

KS: They don’t need to get much. My work emerges from my personal curiosity, it’s not autobiographical. I often find people interpreting things in a didactic manner, things I believe come into one’s life in a more dynamic and haphazard way. If the work resonated with someone else, then it holds some use. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. When I see art it engages me, like a stone in water causing ripples in a pond. You can’t calculate that. Art isn’t a stand-in for something. It offers the potential for experience. It’s not about something. It is something. It is a proof in itself.

Joyce Beckenstein is a writer based in New York.