Kiki Smith retrospective coming to Whitney

The Whitney Museum of American Art at Madison Avenue and 75th Street is to present a Kiki Smith retrospective traversing the artist's 25-year career, between November 16 and February 12.

September 21, 2006 09:50
4 minute read.
Kiki Smith retrospective coming to Whitney

kiki smith art 88. (photo credit: )


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The Whitney Museum of American Art at Madison Avenue and 75th Street is to present a Kiki Smith retrospective traversing the artist's 25-year career, between November 16 and February 12. Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, the artist's first full-scale American museum survey, will include some 125 works in glass, bronze, beeswax, papier-mache, as well as prints, drawings, photographs, films, and installations. Smith's sources of inspiration have included religion, folklore, myth, literature and natural science. A decade ago she had a show at the Israel Museum that included a large box of sperm, all made of glass. The daughter of Jane Smith, an opera singer and actress, and Tony Smith, the noted postwar abstract sculptor and architect, Kiki Smith grew up in New Jersey. Her father encouraged Smith and her younger twin sisters, Beatrice and Seton, to participate in the making of his work, and often hosted fellow artists and friends such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and the young Richard Tuttle as household guests. After a year at Hartford Art School, Smith settled in New York City in 1976, where she turned seriously to art. Within a few years her underground reputation grew steadily alongside her involvement with Collaborative Projects, Inc. (CoLab), a New York-based artists cooperative. Her art in those early years introduced the body as subject, and reflected her interest in such visual sources as Gray's Anatomy, the classic illustrated text first published in 1858, in which organs are depicted as discrete and de-contextualized. An untitled plaster cast of a hand and forearm, made in 1980, the year of her father's death, evidenced the beginnings of her interest in casting the body from life, and also introduced the notion of mortality into her visual thinking, a continuing preoccupation in her work. In 1985, Smith spent three months training as an emergency medical technician. This led her to consider interior physiology as a subject for her art and to move to a more clinical depiction of the body. Through sculptures and prints, she created a lexicon of often life-size anatomical images - individual organs and parts, lifted from their corporeal context and reinterpreted in unexpected, delicate materials. Works such as Glass Stomach (1985), an elegant, crystalline vessel; Ribs (1987), constructed of terra-cotta "bones" interlaced with thread and precariously attached to the wall; and Shield (1988), a plaster cast of a third-trimester pregnant belly, are all fashioned from materials that in their vulnerability allude to the fragility of life itself. Other works from this period reveal Smith's abiding interest in craft. Dowry Cloth (1990), a sensuous and tactile work formed through felting, one of the earliest methods for making fabric; and Lucy's Daughters (1990), a cluster of stitched and printed dolls, all were made using practices associated with domestic handiwork that inform Smith's art to the present. In the early 1990s, Smith continued to embrace the human body as subject, moving away from her investigations of organs and systems to works depicting the complete figure. Using materials such as beeswax, paper and bronze, she made a number of pieces - often cast from life - that examined the female form as a site of political and social meaning. Her disarming, anonymous bodies are far from the ideal nudes populating much of art history. Like Smith's early sculptures, they are at once visceral and dignified, familiar yet discomfiting. In her disquieting Untitled (1990), the naked bodies of a woman and a man slump with bowed heads suggestive of Adam and Eve ashamed of their new knowledge five minutes after sharing the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Works from this period demonstrate Smith's use of paper as a powerful medium of expression. Untitled (Blood Noise) (1993) includes sentences written by her sister Beatrice, who died of AIDS in 1988, describing the final symptoms of her illness. The texts hang like streamers from a quilt-like, painted collage of lithographs that form a narrative and symbolic portrait. Smith's focus on the female form soon led her to reexamine traditional feminine archetypes from religion, mythology, and folklore, as seen in sculptures such as the Virgin Mary (1992), flayed skinless like an anatomical model, her muscles exposed. Smith also depicts women that art history has largely forgotten, such as Lilith, who in various Hebrew legends was Adam's first wife (and as such refused to submit to a subordinate role), or a vengeful, night-flying demon of the air. Smith cast her Lilith (1994) in bronze, with eerily human glass eyes peering from the dark patina of a body that seems to crawl across the wall. The natural world has played a significant role in Smith's art, with many works based on landscape, the cosmos, and the historical and spiritual connections between humans and animals. Smith has incorporated birds extensively in her work, and has also turned her attention to a wide array of other creatures, frequently depicting wolves, deer, cats, owls, bats, mice and other animals drawn from the contexts of religion, literature and folklore. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Walker Art Center has published a 312-page, fully illustrated catalogue with essays by exhibition curator Siri Engberg, art historian Linda Nochlin and folklorist Marina Warner, as well as an interview with the artist by novelist Lynne Tillman. The publication features a complete exhibition history and bibliography, and a comprehensive illustrated chronology of Smith's life and work. Smith has contributed a 16-page photographic work entitled Thicket (2005) as an insert in the book. The catalogue is distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. This exhibition was first seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, while an expanded presentation was recently shown at the Walker Art Center; it then traveled to the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston before coming to the Whitney.

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