Barbara T. Smith and the messy energy of turning life into art

This article is part of the Fine Arts and Exhibitions special section for the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.


While still a California housewife with three young children, Barbara T. Smith began in the mid-1960s to take her own creative pursuits more seriously. After volunteering at the Pasadena Museum of Art, she was already hanging out with artists and trading art.

She then visited Gemini GEL, a new printmaking workshop in Los Angeles, to see if she could make a lithograph there.

But Gemini works by inviting more established artists, so Ms. Smith took matters into her own hands. She leased a Xerox 914 copier and set up shop in the dining room of her Green and Green-designed home.

She began eight months of intense experimentation, copying her own hands, breasts, family photos and household trinkets to make prints and bind books. This early experimentation—before many Fluxus artists were working with the medium—was so productive that she described the Xerox machine as a collaborator or even a lover. “I couldn’t stop,” she wrote in her 2023 memoir.

Based on these memoirs and her archives, an exhibition at the Getty Center that ended in July included an actual Xerox 914. Now the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is presenting more than 30 of her Xerox works as part of her largest exhibition yet. “Barbara T. Smith: Evidence” through Jan. 14. It ranges from her photocopies and paintings from the 1960s to her body and soul-based performances and installations from the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.

“I call it the year of Barbara,” said Ann Ellegood, director of the museum of contemporary art.

Ms. Smith is 92, and the attention has been around for a long time. But it might be a good time, given the current conversation — and recent writing by Rachel Cusk and Jenny Ofill, among others — about the practical and existential challenges of making something meaningful out of or during motherhood.

Mrs. Smith did not have the chance to be an artist and a mother for long. As she began to pursue her art, her marriage fell apart. In 1968, she granted her husband legal custody of their children to facilitate his travel to Europe with them, she said, on the assumption that they would work out a joint parenting arrangement. They didn’t.

“I was devastated by it all,” Ms. Smith said from the living room of her Pasadena apartment, examples of her photocopy-based artwork containing images of her children hanging behind her. An attempt to get custody in court failed and she did not spend any more time with her daughters for 17 years. (She did continue to see her son, who was in boarding school.)

Ultimately, she uses her art as a way to process the loss. Enrolling in a new master’s program at the University of California, Irvine, in 1969, she began creating ritual performances that tested her psychological limits, much as her classmate Chris Burden tested himself physically. (Ms. Smith was there for his 1971 performance of “Shoot,” where he was shot and wounded by a friend with a .22 rifle, and she recorded the audio.)

For some performances, she offers her own body, naked, as a canvas to be painted or contemplated. For another, who started in a Las Vegas swimming pool, she recreated the experience of being in the ocean and almost giving up on life, going with the currents.

“Doing this work has given me a deeper way to talk about my personal dilemmas — and a way to feel less isolated, knowing I’m not the only one experiencing this kind of grief,” she said.

Not all of her early performances were so cathartic, but many touched on emotional vulnerability, sexual and spiritual growth, and the nurturing power of community. For one performance, “Ritual Feeding,” she arranged a dinner party that resembled a strange surgical experiment, with forceps as forks, test tubes for wine glasses, and raw chicken livers to be cooked in boiling red wine on Bunsen burners, all under the loud soundtrack of a beating heart.

Her work also has moments of comic relief. After another dinner in 1971, centered on a giant Hubbard pumpkin, Mrs. Smith said she saw glimpses of something good and godly in its emerald green shell. She made a mold around it and made a resin cast that eventually became a relic displayed as the “Sacred Gourd”, complete with its own shrine and celebrated through dances and performances.

“As a serious travesty,” she said in a 2002 video, “we’ve experienced miracles, betrayals, persecutions and conversions.”

Her most famous performance, “Feed Me,” took place in 1973 from sunset to sunrise at an alternative museum in San Francisco, where she set up a sofa with massage oils, cheese and wine scattered nearby. She was naked. A recording of her voice repeating “Feed me” repeatedly. She had sex with more than one man who attended the event, and much subsequent press coverage focused on this. But she emphasizes other details, including massages and conversations.

“I was trying to show that relationships between men and women are not just about sex, but are much more subtle or complex than the culture suggests,” Ms Smith said. She noted that she was directing interactions tonight, unlike Yoko Ono in Cut Piece in 1964 or Marina Abramović in Rhythm 0 a decade later, who allowed visitors to use tools to act or even to harm their bodies.

Jenelle Porter, who curated the show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, pointed out something else that sets Smith apart from other performance art pioneers like Abramovich and Karoli Schneemann. “One thing that sets Barbara apart for me is that she’s constantly mining her own biography and making work that’s not conducive to advertising or the market,” Ms. Porter said, describing how her work resists formula stylistically and materially .

Ms. Porter attempted to capture this range through the show’s mix of videos, drawings, sculptures and ephemera. “The show is messed up — life is messed up,” she said.

One of Ms. Smith’s most rambunctious and lively performances came when she turned 50 in 1981, marked by her arrival at a gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., on her ex-boyfriend’s motorcycle. For “Birthdaze,” as this work was known, she enlisted artists Alan Kaprow and Paul McCarthy as performers to help her dramatize the various stages of her intellectual and erotic awakening.

Her art then focused more on social and environmental issues. But she returned to the idea of ​​her life’s journey for “Meditation of Time,” weaving a white garment in various public places, including several in her hometown of Pasadena, as if weaving her own story.

The idea was to make a single garment that would never end. But she eventually stopped in 2009 when the knitting was over 40 feet long, and now she considers herself retired from making art.

“I think of knitting as a device that creates a meditative space,” she said. “The work is finished, but the meditation can continue in various ways.”

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