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One On 1: Kiki Smith Displays Artistic Discipline

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Artist Kiki Smith says it was a performance of the rock band The New York Dolls in the 1970s that convinced her that she needed to move here because of New York's energy. Since then, she's supplied her own energy to the art world here and beyond. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Kiki Smith's work has been described as innovative, groundbreaking. But her work hours?
Conventional.

"I work just like regular hours, 10 to 6, Monday through Friday," Smith says. "For me I try to be orderly in my life like that."


Kiki Smith has been a fixture in the art world for 30 years. Her sculptures, prints, installations, glasswork and drawings, are in the permanent collections of more than 40 museums, including the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Met. She creates much of her work at home in the East Village. Smith grew up with the idea of mixing personal and professional space.

"My father was the sculptor Tony Smith, and he worked at our dining room table and in the sitting room," recalls Smith. "His artwork was completely intricate to the rest of our daily lives. It was maybe the main focus of our daily lives and probably for me it is, also."

But Smith says she's a bit more cautious since moving from Ludlow Street to her current apartment.

"In my old place, I had wax all over the entire floors and had it all over the...I was cooking on the same stove I was heating wax, so there were always wax fumes and we had headaches all the time and things. And so when I moved here, I said, 'I don't need to live like that anymore,'" says Smith.

Her works have covered a myriad of topics, including mortality, the inner workings of the human body and religion. One of her most recent projects was the creation of a stained glass window for the famed Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, where the Catholic-born Smith, along with architect Deborah Gans, married her own ideas to the realities of the physical structure.


"Each religion or activity has these sorts of objects or accoutrements or attributes that coalesce around belief systems, and to me, that in particular is interesting to me," Smith says.

She has long been fascinated by human anatomy and what she sees as the physical, social, spiritual and even political significance of the human body. But the origin of this intrigue is a bit more pedestrian.

"I had a boyfriend who was a book buyer at the strand and he brought home Gray's Anatomy for me one day. And so it was really simple. Before that I was painting his guitar," Smith says.

She's not only created works about the body, but what comes out of the body, like an exhibit of 12 jars with the names of bodily fluids. In the 1990s, a work called "Tale" was described by the then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as "disgusting." She has said the work was about shame and humiliation.

"Especially in America, that there's this tremendous desire to conform or be reductive. In a way, art is always trying to kick out space. So, that you have inside yourself," Smith explains.

By the nature of what she does, Smith is exposing her work to the public, but not necessarily herself.

"There's a moat between me and my artwork, like between myself as a person and my work. But my work functions as something that mediates between me and the world," Smith says. "I completely trust my work and the process of my work, that it takes me where I need to be. I don't have that in many other aspects of my life."

As a single woman in her 50s who works at home all day with three assistants, Smith says those "other aspects of her life" must happen away from home.

"I need a lot of private time to myself so I prefer to have my personal intimate interactions with other people outside of my house and outside of my daily life in a way," SMith says. "Younger women artists have families, think about having families, and can balance that. To me, I needed my work more than I needed anybody else. More than I needed myself. More than I needed other people to surround my life."


Kiki Smith grew up as the daughter of a professional singer and one of the country's pre eminent modernist sculptors. This was not your typical home in South Orange, New Jersey.

"We were very odd, I think, in relation to our neighbors. We had enormous sculptures in our backyard that were really the size of a house. But we had an incredibly rich family life," recalls Smith. "Our interior life was really fascinating. It was more fascinating to me than what was happening outside."

That interior life included a death mask her father made of his mother. Years later, Kiki Smith would also make death masks of her father and younger sister.

"It's making a tribute, a memory," Smith says. "The death masks of my sister and my father weren't my art work. That's very separate from my art work. That's just my personal family activity."

Smith eventually realized how the freedom in her father's work helped form her as an artist. But she says her father's career dominated their family life.

"And as a teenager, I resented it. I just wanted to get out of it somehow," recalls Smith.

After high school, she went to trade school and later worked as a baker, electrician's assistant and surveyor. And she could always count on her parents' support.

"Both of their lives had evolved in unpredictable ways. But they had shown up and worked for it, which is something that I saw also, that it was a discipline. It wasn't just like, you're sitting around emoting. You have to show up for it, you have to work," Smith says.

Some of her initial shows were held in abandoned buildings. Her popularity built in the 80s, and her art was now being seen not in abandoned buildings but in museums. Ever since, her work has been shown all over the world.

"If I look back at the trajectory of it, I see that, in a way, it's like an amulet. It's like making a protection or making a synthesis of different time periods or what's happening, sort of in the undercurrent of my life," Smith says.

It's been an intriguing life, even by the standards of the art world. At age 56 Smith shows no signs of slowing down. She is disciplined about the daily work of creating art and managing an art career. But she leaves herself open to whatever may inspire her next.

"One tries to follow one's work rather than willfully lead it," Smith says. "Because then you're limited by your own aesthetics or belief systems or taste. And what comes to you is always much larger than what you could envision or imagine from yourself."

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