Kiki Smith (born January 18, 1954) is a West German-born American artist whose work has addressed the themes of sex, birth and regeneration. Her figurative work of the late 1980s and early 1990s confronted subjects such as AIDS, gender and race, while recent works have depicted the human condition in relationship to nature. Smith lives and works in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City.
Early life and education
Smith’s father was artist Tony Smith and her mother was actress and opera singer Jane Lawrence. Although Kiki's work takes a very different form than that of her parents, early exposure to her father's process of making geometric sculptures allowed her to experience formal craftsmanship firsthand. Her childhood experience in the Catholic Church, combined with a fascination of the human body, has long shaped her work conceptually.
Smith moved from Germany to South Orange, New Jersey as an infant in 1955. She subsequently attended Columbia High School. Later, she was enrolled at Hartford Art School in Connecticut for eighteen months from 1974-75. She then moved to New York City in 1976 and joined Collaborative Projects (Colab), an artist collective. The influence of this radical group's use of unconventional materials can be in seen in her work. For a short time in 1984, she studied to be an emergency medical technician and sculpted body parts, and by 1990, she began to craft human figures.
Prompted by her father's death in 1980 and by the AIDS death of her sister, the underground actress, Beatrice “Bebe” Smith in 1988, Smith began an ambitious investigation of mortality and the physicality of the human body. She has gone on to create works that explore a wide range of human organs; including sculptures of hearts, lungs, stomach, liver and spleen. Related to this was her work exploring bodily fluids, which also had social significance as responses to the Aids crisis (blood) and women's rights (urine, menstrual blood, feces).
Smith has experimented with a wide range of printmaking processes. Some of her earliest print works were screen-printed dresses, scarves and shirts, often with images of body parts. In association with Colab, Smith printed an array of posters in the early 1980s containing political statements or announcing Colab events. In 1988 she created "All Souls", a fifteen-foot screen-print work featuring repetitive images of a fetus, an image Smith found in a Japanese anatomy book. Smith printed the image in black ink on 36 attached sheets of handmade Thai paper.
MOMA and the Whitney Museum both have extensive collections of Smith's prints. In the "Blue Prints" series, 1999, Kiki Smith experimented with the aquatint process. The "Virgin with Dove" was achieved with an airbrushed aquatint, an acid resist that protects the copper plate. When printed, this technique results in a halo around the Virgin Mary and Holy Spirit.
"Mary Magdelene" (1994), a sculpture made of silicon bronze and forged steel, is an example of Smith's non-traditional use of the female nude. The figure is without skin everywhere but her face, breasts and the area surrounding her navel. She wears a chain around her ankle; her face is relatively undetailed and is turned upwards. Smith has said that when making Mary Magdalene she was inspired by depictions of Mary Magdalene in Southern German sculpture, where she was depicted as a "wild woman". Smith's sculpture "Standing" (1998), featuring a female figure standing atop the trunk of a Eucalyptus tree, is a part of the Stuart Collection of public art on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.
In 2005, Smith's installation, Homespun Tales won acclaim at the 51st Venice Biennale. "Lodestar", Smith's 2010 installation at the Pace Gallery, was an exhibition of free-standing stained glass works painted with life-size figures. In 2012, Smith showed a series of three 9 x 6 ft. Jacquard tapestries, published by Magnolia Editions, at the Neuberger Museum of Art.
After five years of development, Smith's first permanent outdoor sculpture was installed in 1998 on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.
In 2010, the Museum at Eldridge Street commissioned Smith and architect Deborah Gans to create a new monumental east window for the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark located on New York’s Lower East Side. This permanent commission marked the final significant component of the Museum’s 20-year restoration.
For the Claire Tow Theater above the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Smith conceived Overture (2012), a little mobile made of cross-hatched planks and cast-bronze birds.
She has created unique books, including:
Fountainhead (1991); The Vitreous Body (2001); and Untitled (Book of Hours) (1986).
Smith collaborated with poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge to produce Endocrinology (1997), and Concordance (2006), and with author Lynne Tillman to create Madame Realism (1984). She has worked with poet Anne Waldman on If I Could Say This With My Body, Would I. I Would. Smith also collaborated on a performance featuring choreographer Douglas Dunn and Dancers, musicians Ha-Yang Kim, Daniel Carter, Ambrose Bye, and Devin Brahja Waldman, performed by and set to Anne Waldman's poem Jaguar Harmonics.
In 1982, Smith received her first solo exhibition, "Life Wants to Live", at The Kitchen. Since then, her work has been exhibited in nearly 150 solo exhibitions at museums and galleries worldwide and has been featured in hundreds of significant group exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial, New York (1991, 1993, 2002); La Biennale di Firenze, Florence, Italy (1996-1997; 1998); and the Venice Biennale (1993, 1999, 2005, 2009).
Past solo exhibitions have been held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth (1996–97); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1996–97); Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (1997–98); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (1998); Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (1998); Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (1999); St. Louis Art Museum (1999-2000); and the International Center for Photography (2001).
In 1996, Smith exhibited in a group show at SITE Santa Fe, along with Kara Walker.
In 2005, "the artist's first full-scale American museum survey" titled Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Then an expansion came to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where the show originated. At the Walker, Smith coauthored the catalogue raisonné with curator Siri Engberg.
The exhibition traveled to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and finally to La Coleccion Jumex in Ecatepec de Morelos outside Mexico City. In 2008, Smith gave Selections from Animal Skulls (1995) to the Walker in honor of Engberg.
Smith's work can be found in more than 30 public collections around the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Bonner Kunstverein (Bonn, Germany); the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA); the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA); the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin, Ireland); the Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel); the Speed Art Museum (Louisville, KY); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk, Denmark); the McNay Art Museum (San Antonio, TX); the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); the Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); the New York Public Library; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Tate Gallery (London, England); the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, England); the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, CT); the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); and the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT).
Smith's many accolades also include the Nelson A. Rockefeller Award from Purchase College School of the Arts (2010), Women in the Arts Award from the Brooklyn Museum (2009), the 50th Edward MacDowell Medal (2009), the Medal Award from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2006), the Athena Award for Excellence in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design (2006), the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (2000), and Time Magazine’s “Time 100: The People Who Shape Our World” (2006). Smith was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, in 2005.
In 2012, she received the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts from Hillary Clinton. Pieces by Smith adorn consulates in Istanbul and Mumbai. After being chosen speaker for the annual Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Lecture Series in Contemporary Sculpture and Criticism in 2013, Smith became the artist-in-residence for the University of North Texas Institute for the Advancement of the Arts in the 2013-14 academic year.
In 2016, Smith was awarded the International Sculpture Center's Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award.